Literally and figuratively!
Since I’m now serving as a Volunteer Leader in Kingston, I’ve started a new blog, Better Mus Come, http://bettermuscome.wordpress.com, which is where I’ll be posting from here on out!
Literally and figuratively!
Since I’m now serving as a Volunteer Leader in Kingston, I’ve started a new blog, Better Mus Come, http://bettermuscome.wordpress.com, which is where I’ll be posting from here on out!
I like to think I played it pretty cool today, all things considered. I breezed into the clinic and announced I was there for an HIV test as if I’d done it every day of my life.
At time, I was fairly confident, and had left the house with the attitude that I’d just go down to St Ann’s Bay, waltz in, be granted a “Negative” like it was owed me, and go home.
Smash cut to 3 minutes later, and the doctor and I are staring intently at a thin piece of plastic the size of a stick of Wrigley’s. At one end is little area where a drop of my blood is being slowly diluted by testing liquid. Most of the rest of the strip is given over to a bar where the dark fuschia infusion of blood and HIV testing solution is creeping up a piece of something resembling litmus paper.
The whole thing could not have taken more than 5 minutes but it felt like forever, and I was glad I was sitting down. My legs had left any semblance of solidity long behind and I was certain that were my teeth not clamped together, my stomach would have leapt out of my mouth and made a run for it.
This was not my first HIV test- one is required as part of the medical clearance proceedings before placement, but it’s done as a matter of course along with so much other blood work that I never really felt as though I was Getting Tested for HIV.
Waiting, watching is nerve-wracking, and I suddenly understood, really understood what my boyfriend had been saying the night before about his previous testing experiences. The waiting is the worst few minutes imaginable, watching the blood-mixture slowly move towards the end of the strip, stop-WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?- start moving again-OHMIGODISTHATBAD? Awful. My hubris had slunk away into a corner halfway through so I tried to distract myself by thinking about more pleasant things, like the fact that I’m incredibly fortunate to have someone in my life with whom I can have serious, grown-up discussions about serious, grown-up things like HIV. So lucky, very very lucky to have such a really wonderful man in my-AHGH! THE DOCTOR HAS A MAGNIFYING GLASS. WHYISHELOOKINGATMYSRIPWITHAMAGNIYINGGLASS?!!!!!.
The thing about it is, no matter how careful you are, things still happen. HIV is a virus, and a virus does not care if you a good or a bad person. You cannot reason with a virus, you cannot make bargains or offer sacrifices. That kind of magical thinking gets you nowhere, and with HIV especially gets you and others killed. Maybe not right away. But eventually.
Furthermore, this is the Caribbean, which after Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of infection in the world. HIV has never before seemed so real to me. The Bahamas lead with a jaw-dropping prevalence rate of 3.1%, followed by Haiti (the numbers for Haiti are astronomical, over 100,000) with 1.9%, then Jamaica, “land we love” at 1.7% of the population (about 32,000 people). [I grabbed these 2009 stats from the Avert website http://www.avert.org/caribbean.htm%5D
So, with a statistical sword of Domoscles hanging over my head, with all sorts of WHATIFWHATIFWHATIFs running through my brain, I held my breath as the doctor put away the magnifying glass and scribbled something on the ruled index card that is made out for every patient at every clinic and doctor’s office around the island. I couldn’t see a thing he was writing, but I tried to guess the letters (is it an “N” or a “P”- wait, was that a “G” or an “S”?) based on the movements of his hands. Flipping the card over blank side up, he casually looked up and said “I’d like to give it another minute.”
ANOTHER MINUTE?? The “WHATIF”‘s have reached a newer, more parananoic pitch, and although I nodded with what I hoped was an admirable degree of sang-froid, I was certain the voices in my head were audible even to passers-by on the street outside.
After 60 more seconds of eternity, he handed me the card and pronounced me “Negative”. “I just like to make sure there are no irregularities that would require further testing,” he said. “That will be JA $1500″.
More palpable relief was never felt.
So, tomorrow, when most of the people I know back in farin are sitting around overburdened dining room tables with lots of people they love (but maybe aren’t sure they like at the moment for one reason or another), and are expressing the usual gratitude for food and family, I will be grateful for something else entirely.
I will be grateful for parents who instilled strong self esteem and a healthy attitude about sex and how to have it safely. I will be grateful for inexpensive testing supplies which allows people the world over to be able to afford to know what their status is. I will be grateful for fairly easy access to condoms. I will be grateful for choice and education. I will be grateful to have a partner who cares enough and respects me enough to have difficult conversations about a potentially scary thing.
I am grateful to be able to share that my status is a resounding “Negative.”
I work with 7th graders. Yes. Not as rotten as 8th grade, but certainly more terrifying than 6th.
Seriously! I’m wracking my brain, trying to think of anyone I know who actually brightens at the thought of the dreaded “middle school” years. Kindergarten? Oh, such a fun age! 4th grade? What an exciting challenge! High school? You’re probably one of those “cool” adults that young people easily relate to.
Grades 7 and 8 seem to elicit an almost universal groan and an expressed wish to immediately canonize any teacher who ventures forth into the Dark Years.
It’s an understandable sentiment- 12-14 year old are going through some of the most traumatic (and dramatic) changes both physically and emotionally. EVERYTHING is turned upside-down: how you relate to your family, your friends and most importantly, to yourself. Some people are sprinting ahead towards full adolescence while others are clinging desperately to the security of childhood. And hormones.
Dear lord, the hormones.
Also, I’m in a Jamaican school, where respect for authority figures starts to dwindle around age 11. Even in my very small classroom (we have 13 students when everyone manages to make it to school), it can be tricky maintaining order without turning into an ogre. Some students stood out at potential “disruptive personalities” from Day 1.
One girl, especially so, and it’s been a rocky few months with her making faces, refusing to stay seated, provoking other students, and other classic attention-seeking behavior.
Frustrating and heartbreaking, but I’ve learned not to take bad attitudes and out-of-order conduct personally, because it is generally symptomatic of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with me, and they behave this way for pretty much everyone else. And, like I said, this one girl in particular.
One of the things that we (the teacher with whom I work with closely, it’s her 7th grade class and when I’m not leading a session or doing pull-outs I act as an assistant) had noticed was that while this student was bright, she had issues finishing her work because she spends so much time goofing off.
Yesterday after grading her science notebook, I told her exactly that.
Look, I said. You can do this, and you do it well when you settle down. Seriously. You’re a smart girl, so you need to act like it! If you started your work when you’re supposed to, you’d actually get it done, and I’d be able to give you higher marks. Think about it.
She responded with a “Yes Miss”, which is the standard reply to anything I say. I shrugged it off, feeling as though I’d tried, but maybe (probably) nothing would come of it and the cycle would start over again Friday (today).
And then….today during Social Studies, I caught her in the act. Miss W was writing out the assignment on the board. The girl had yet to get out her notebook- and I could see her catch herself. Out came the notebook! Out came the pencil! Down went the work onto the paper! Halfway through she caught my eye and smiled. Then she went right back to the assignment.
I left school exhausted as usual, but feeling as though maybe, maybe I’d started to reach her a little bit. These are crucial years, both developmentally and educationally, and it kills me to kids holding themselves back. I only had to speak to her once about staying in her seat, and she fully and enthusiastically participated in the inaugural Girls’ Club meeting at the end of the day.
Will there be many more difficult moments in the future with her? I don’t doubt it for a second, but today gave me a glimpse of hope that eventually, this rocky road will smooth out as much as it ever can with a 13 year old. Poor thing, though whether in reference to her or me is still up for debate.
I was in the office of the school I work at yesterday, trying to print something, when I got shanghied into figuring out how to adjust a microscope.
I feel it’s a great metaphor for my entire service so far: I start out with the intention to one thing, and the next thing I know, I’m doing something completely different.
More importantly, I think that it illustrates the attitudes that frustrate me so much in my quest to make a difference in the lives of my community.
Some of you may know that I’ve taken over teaching science to my 7th graders, and early on in the year, I expressed my frustration to my mother that the school didn’t have any equipment for the experiments outlined in the Science textbook. Apparently, it’s all been sitting in one of the cupboards, packed and utterly forgotten until one of the admin assistants took it upon himself to organize and assess all the unused books and teaching aids. Just sitting there!
(It should be noted that this seems to be a trend in many schools: my friend Alex teaches chemistry and bio at Calabar, one of the best boys high schools in the country. This past spring he related a similar story of finding boxes and boxes of brand-new lab equipment and a skeleton, just stashed somewhere and forgotten.)
As head-banging-against-the-wall frustrating as that experience was, it was, in a small, bizarre way, somewhat vindicating. I frequently worry that my inability to magically transform my service into a nauseatingly-smug list of success stories is a reflection on me, and that my reluctance to try and undertake a large project or secure grant funding are symptoms of a cynical deflection from my failings as a volunteer.
This story reminds me otherwise- that there is a certain…culture at work at the school, and I’m not talking about Jamaican culture in general, but more of a site-specific culture, about how the teachers, students, and goverment relate to and interact with each other that has absolutely nothing to do with me. Obviously, each school is different, but the general sense that I get here is one of stagnation and resignation.
This is a very broad brush with which to paint the situation, and I hope that the reader can appreciate that there are many exceptions to this, and while there are many wonderful teachers here who are making a huge impact in the lives of their students, it seems that on a collective level, everyone has thrown up their hands and thrown in the towel.
(Trying to articulate this accurately is incredibly difficult. I’m trying hard not to sound overtly negative, while clearly communicating to the reader something that is almost intangible.)
I have the extreme good fortune to work closely with a major exception to the rule, and she shared my frustration with the entire mess when I got back to the classroom, and confirmed my hunch. She and her sister have worked at CAAS for a few years, but the year before, her sister took a position teaching at a different school, and is finding it to be a much more positive environment.
So it’s not just me who is noticing these things, and it’s not up to me (nor is it possible) to change the prevailing culture of indifference. It really is a relief to know that that I’m right in suspecting that a large project isn’t going to get very far off the ground, or would be carried on after I left, that I’m not just being bitter or cynical.
Instead, yesterday gave me the gift of being able to accept that the most valuable thing I can do is just be there for the kids in whatever small ways I can. Science class twice a week, drawing class Monday afternoons for the 8th graders, Fridays for the 7th grade, and small reading pull-out groups. Nothing big. Nothing especially glorious to put on my resume, but I leave school each day feeling like maybe I did do a little something, and my time was not spent in futility. It’s hard to ask for much more than that.
I think every Peace Corps Volunteer has a moment (or many) where the only sane and prudent thing to do is to call your APCD and request your ticket home, like 10 minutes ago. Today was one of those days and quite honestly, for about an hour, the only thing (only!) preventing me from doing so was the fact that just yesterday I’d announced my decision to extend another month past my official COS date and to back track 24 hours later seemed…silly.
So instead, I went to the storage room and very quietly sobbed out some rage and frustration. We all get frustrated, we all want to go home now and then, but I’m still feeling like I don’t have any success stories and I’ve been at site for a year and a half. I go to school, I do what I can, and I try to get things done at my main assignment. I do, I try. I try and try, and this morning it was painfully clear that many of my efforts had come to naught. So it goes, I guess.
On a regular day, I’d take off early and decompress at home, but today was International Rural Women’s Appreciation Day, so my supervisor, one of her employees, and myself piled into a chichi bus with lots of other women. We creaked and groaned and swayed our way on the most unbelievable roads to a church in the middle of Nowhere, Seriously Nowhere, St Ann for a special conference addressing the plight of Jamaica’s rural women.
This is a theme I’m really familiar with, because FarmGirl Produce is part of the Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers, and many other members where there with their goods to display and sell (we brought our flavored bammys, which were a huge hit!).
As usual, Yours Sincerely was the lone white girl in attendance, drawing all sorts of “cut eyes” and my favorite, the Very Pointed Ignore. Whatever, a so dem stay, and I’ve been here long enough to know that as soon as someone hears me speak and interact with another person, the “pree-ing” immediately gives way to delighted disbelief: “No sah, mi never hear a white ooman a gwaan so!”
Todays breakthrough moment occurred after the conference with a fellow JNRWP member who was chatting with my supervisor. I was standing around waiting for the bus to load when I was approached by an entreprenurial young man selling pumpkins and plaintains to the hoards of women milling in the road. After hearing me conducting my business in patwa, the other woman started asking my supervisor and Mildred (President of JNRWP) all about me and how I get on with things on The Rock. After it was discovered that I can cook rice and peas (“with coconut milk and the scallion and the things” Mildred was quick to reassure her that I was the genuine article) and that I can get around on public ( transportation) like you wouldn’t believe, and finally, that I love coffee, it was casually mentioned that that their group (in rural St Andrew) was having a work day next Wednesday. I volunteered myself and my waterboots which brought more shrieks of delight: Jamaicans just LOVE to see me walking down the road in my Hunters with my cutlass (machete) slung across my back.
By the time we piled back in the bus, I was completely and utterly drained, and daunted by the prospect of starting from zero again tomorrow at work.
Now, every time I have a really bad day, or as the case is right now, a rough few weeks, I know that around the corner is something wonderful or ridiculous or kind or…or….awesome is awaiting me, because that’s just how Jamaicans are. They may not make it easy for you, but they will make it all worthwhile if you can just wait it out.
Right, anyways, so I was completely zoned out when someone tapped my arm. “You want a piece of cake?” The group from St Andrew had made decorated cake to display and there was some left over. Cutting a tall iced cake with a plastic knife in a crowded bus on some of the worst roads in the world is a serious undertaking. I was sort of expecting that the rest of the cake would be passed out in due fashion, but, nope. No one else got any cake. Just me, which means that this was one of the rare occasions (I’m wheat-intolerant) when I had my cake and ate it too. I can’t begin to tell you how good it tasted.
When we finally reached Claremont and the driver stopped to let allow a large flock of us to disembark, all of the St Andrews women made sure to touch my arm and say “Take care! See you Wednesday!”
So, here’s to Jamaica, to rural women the planet over, and to the Friendship Heights (I think that’s right) ladies in particular: you could have no way of knowing how rotten a start to the day I had, but your kindness and sincerity made it all worthwhile. Thank you.
I thought I was safe this time, I really did. None of the usual warning signs were there. This once, just once, I would be able to have a bus ride in peace…
Honestly, I should have known when he walked on, hawking gospel cd’s, that I had not escaped the long arm of the Lord.
Every time I have to go into Kingston, the yellow government bus I’m on is transformed into a traveling church by some enterprising evangelical on a Mission.
The first time it happened, the driver switched off the radio 10 minutes into the route, and launched into an impromtu sermon. Usually though, it’s a passenger, some enlightened soul who’s been called to ride from bus to bus, spreading the good word.
Now, I’m a big believer in religious freedom, specifically, in my freedom from other people’s religion being imposed on me, especially in confined public spaces. As a confirmed agnostic and suspected atheist, you can imagine my amusement/horror when it became clear to me that instead of ignoring the person, my fellow passengers get really into it. This is unfortunate, because it just encourages more public bus-preaching.
These encounters all follow a familiar pattern: Usually you can spot the enlightened one. Sometimes, they are little old ladies dressed in white, but usually, they are men. Young men, old men, nattily dressed in button downs and slacks and really shiny shoes. What sets them apart from their peers is that they are sweaty. Because if you aren’t elevating your heart rate by working yourself into a near-hysteria, you’re not really doing God’s work.
Once the bus has pulled out and the captive audience has settled in, a lone voice will pipe up, asking the “bothers and sisters for a moment of your time, just a moment, to tell you about the awesome power of Jesus Christ” (it is never ‘just a moment’, but then again, this a country where “soon come” is the unofficial national motto). No one in the bus ever says anything at this point, or even turns their heads, and each time, I begin to hope that THIS time, just this once, my co-passengers will ignore this dude, and we can ride the bus in peace and quiet. That would be a miracle I could really get behind.
Never is this the case (proving, to my mind, that there is no God), and the self-appointed apostle begins his sales pitch, yesterday’s followed the script to the letter.
The Sinner, as he was in his former life, lead a wicked, wicked life brothers and sisters, a wicked life! Gambling, rum drinking, other, unspecified sins that I’m sure we can all guess at, human beings being pretty much the same the world over, especially the sinning ones.
So the sinner is going on sinning sinfully, and then the Something happens. The something always happens, and in this case, our Sinner was shot, and he saw The Light. How, exactly, this was possible when the bullet left him blind is what I want to know, I of little-to-no faith, but everyone else seems to take this in stride. It is at this point, that his voice starts to get louder, and the speeach becomes increasingly peppered with “clap if you love Jesus”s. The audience is still unresponsive, but he plows on, getting louder, and the louder he gets, and the more insistently he demands that we declare our love for the Saviour, the other bus passengers begin to get into it. A few claps for Christ here and there, and when he starts singing hymns, more join in, which just eggs him on to louder, more ferverant hights.
By now, his speech has hit the self-sustaining cadence peculiar to Pentecostals, Baptists, and bad slam poets, with a convicted vibrato that would need a sub-woofer to do it justice.
A raging headache has settled in for the long haul, encouraged by the women behind me who have “caught the spirit”.
I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed anyone “catching the spirit”, but it seems to only happen to women here, and they must do it as earsplittingly and implausibly as possible. To my cynical mind, it sounds remarkably like – well, something being faked, let’s leave it at that.
Right, so. Sobbing, screaming women. Man positively vibrating with the power of salvation- and then, something truly wonderful happens.
His cell phone rings!
And he answers it!
Really now. I’m not pulling your leg. Drops the preacher voice and answers the phone.
“Waguaan? Nah man, mi good, listen, mi haffi call yuh back cuz mi a minister right now, likkle more, y’hear?”
And goes right back extolling away like nothing happened. Couldn’t make this up if I tried, and at that moment, I’m trying really hard not to laugh out loud at the whole ridiculous situation and how seriously everyone else is taking it.
The white arches of the Halfway Tree bus park finally loom ahead, which of course is the cue for our pastor to collect change from his flock, so that he can board another bus and start the whole thing over again, while I disembark and immediately try to assess just how soon it is socially acceptable for a strong alcoholic beverage.
I really don’t mean to turn this blog into T’s Guide To Unproductive But Certainly Well-Integrated Service, but! Something happened. A small something, but it’s significance? Major.
It’s Tuesday, and a hot one at that. I was walking the mile up hill from Claremont to Coultart, PMS-y and sort of feeling a way because a friend in the community and I are on the outs and we aren’t really speaking to each other. So, not a talking mood, then.
Maybe a third of the way up the road, I noticed someone following me. This is fine, people walk behind me, in front of me, next to me, all the time. Sometimes there’s chatting, othertimes just a nod and everyone carries on. This was different. I just…knew. By the time I reached the halfway point, my tail had pulled up next to me and was trying to start a conversation. In this situation, I try and answer minimally, but politely, until we can part ways, and with strangers (as this man was, I’d never seen him before) this usually happens at the turn off to the medical center.
Nope. Not only did he not head in another direction, continuing up the road with me and began the inevitable series of boyfriend questions. When I tersely told him that those questions were none of his business, he took the only logical step and started propositioning me for oral sex.
Ladies, when this happens to you, ditch politeness at the door, and get firm in a hurry. Literally, a hurry: I sped up my pace and told him clearly to take himself away. I turned off onto my lane and he was still behind me, and all systems were on alert. I really didn’t want him having any idea where I lived, but unfortunately it’s a straight shot up the lane to my house.
Devoted followers of this here blog will remember that on my lane is an abattoir, or slaughter house, whose employees are vocal and devoted admirers of the local ‘brownin’. I like them all, now that boundaries have been set and raports established, and it was a busy hog day for them this afternoon. I made a bee-line for it.
Picking my way around puddles of blood and trying not to stand directly in the way of the smoking fire where pork strips were sizzling away, I asked if I could camp out for minute to get away from someone who seemed to be following me.
Instantly, everyone was outraged. “Who a trouble yuh, Miss Taylor?!” I gave a description, and one of the men peered up the road. “You mean, that bumbah-clott rastaman who’s been pretending to take a piss for the past five minutes?”
Grabbing knives and theatrically sharpening them as they approached, my champions apparently gave the stranger the interrogation of a life-time. When the questioning had been concluded to their satisfaction, they returned, continuing to loudly and indignantly protest my harassment. “Yuh cannuh just come round hereso and harass people!” “Fi yuh a come uppa Coultart yuh must explain yuhself and yuh business or yuh a ask fi trouble!” “Yuh know seh mi a tell Miss Taylor everyday mi love her an she still naa share her pum-pum wit mi, so mi just leff it! Yuh kyaan force it!”
I walked home home both a little shaken and compeletely humbled that my neighbors take my safety and piece of mind so seriously.
As my friend Sebastian would say,
Lesson The First: Pay attention to your surroundings, and most of all, your gut instincts. They will never steer you wrong. Always have a back-up plan. Always.
Lesson The Second: Build those relationships with your community, and work to make that mental ‘switch’. I used to dread walking past those men and hearing the “Baby”‘s and “Yuh look sexy”‘s. It’s just a part of my day now, and because I can take it in stride, I have built a rapport. That rapport is what allowed me to seek a safe place amongst them, and the respect for me that the rapport has given them is what made them grab their knives and see what was up.
Lesson The Third: Big men in blood-soaked clothes casually sharpening large knives is absolutely persuasive.
So, that’s that. All is well that ends very well, even when maybe it possibly might not have. I’m a very lucky, very grateful, very intact and unviolated and very safe girl.