Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Today, some of the volunteers went to the beach of Fort Clarence.  It's one of the few beaches you have to pay to use here (small fee).  Still, could not find volleyball though - I'm now 0 for 2.  It's a nice little place, where we had some amazing fry fish. Prior to coming here, fish wasn't exactly my favourite food - and it still isn't.  For those who know me, I'm lazy when eating so picking out the bones is a lot of unecessary hassle in my opinion.  Since coming here however, I've had two fish dishes where they serve the fishes whole, with head and tail.  And I enjoyed it!  Figure if I'm here, I might as well try some.

When we were thinking about the trip home, after a nice day at the beach, it turned out to be a bit distressing.  Rain clouds were ominously hovering overhead.  The bus going back to New Kingston comes infrequently, with the last and only return trip available to us being 4:30.  And finally, we had no idea where to catch this very crucial bus. So at about 4 o'clock when we'd had enough sun, we we tried to find our way home.  At the exit, we asked the gate attendant where to catch the bus.  Then suddenly, someone tells us that they can give us a ride and to hop on in!  So the guys hop into the back of the pickup truck and the ladies get in the back seat - and they drove us all the way back to where we had to be.  The ride was a bit bumpy, but it was free!  Also, it was pretty cool to ride in the back of the pickup - being a city boy I've never been able to travel this way before.  Turns out the couple who drove us lived in Canada for 30 years and went to Albert Campbell C.I. - what an amazingly small world. 

Beyond the crime and violence and the warnings to not walk alone at night (which I ended up doing after picking up an early dinner, so it wasn't too late), the people here are also very warm and friendly. Probably due in part to the strong Christian values in its society.  It's the place with the most churches per capita in the world.  All of this makes for an interesting dichotomy that keeps you on your toes but also provides experiences that, where if you immerse yourself, make it hard not to love the place. 

Next, prepare for another week of work.  Happy halloween everyone!

Fort Clarence Beach

Going home!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Orientation, done.

Orientation over the past few days has just zoomed by. We learned a lot about Jamaica, its history, people, food, and culture.  Perhaps too much to remember, but it was worthwhile nonetheless.  I'm sure everything will come back eventually.  This occupied the first 1.5 days of the in-country orientation. 

The last 1.5 days of the orientation took us to see other organizations working with CUSO-VSO and different parts of the city we might not normally see.  We went to see a few  other organizations - Agency for Inner City Revival, Youth Opportunities Unlimited, and Jamaicans for Justice.  We also got to see a couple of different areas in around Kingston - Trenchtown and Blue Mountain.

The week was finally capped by a dinner that gathered all the volunteers in Jamaica together.  It was a lot of happenings over the past few days so I won't delve into too much detail, but instead, present the executive summary.

The country
A beautiful country with a lot of culture and history, shared with some of the other Caribbean countries.  It also has its own set of problems.  I'll reserve these country discussions for their own posts.

We visited the Agency for Inner City Revival ("AIR"), based in Trench Town, Youth Opportunities Unlimited ("YOU"), across from my organization, and Jamaicans for Justice ("JFJ") in Grants Pen, close to where I live.  These are just a few of the organizations operating in Jamaica, and are mostly ones that work with CUSO-VSO, the exception being AIR.  They all operate with  slightly mandates, but the overall vision, I believe they would all agree, converges on the theme of shaping a better Jamaica.  It was interesting and rewarding to be able to meet the individuals within these organizations and to learn about the change they were all trying to effect.  It's inspiring and motivating to see such great initiatives and the progress being made.  It makes me think that change here IS possible.  At the same time, I see overlap between them as each organization expands their scope and reach, due to funding or other reasons.  It'd be great if they could work together, and leverage each others' specialties, instead of each branching out on their own and pretty much re-inventing the wheel.  Perhaps this is a possibility in the near future. Opportunities abound.  Yeah! In any case, it was a great learning experience and gives us a better idea of what's out there, and what some key agencies and contacts are available in the CUSO-VSO world.

Home of Bob Marley (and many others), and the birthplace of Reggae in Jamaica.  It used to be called Trench Pen, named after the person who bought the plot of land and was later renamed to Trench Town.  It's an area that was populated by squatters and government housing.  It's also an area that saw a lot of political violence - so much that it created No Man's Land, a DMZ or de-militarized zone, in between the area which separated two political garrisons.  It was a ghetto, and it was dangerous.  Now, it's much less so and is a shadow of its prior infamy (or else I don't think they would have taken us there).  Violence and crime have been reduced, it is no longer a stronghold for either political party, and one can seen budding roots for education and progress.  It's a great example for what can happen to Jamaica in part due to some of the great organizations here and was humbling to see. 

Blue Mountain
We took a short trip outside of the core Kingston to one of the Blue Mountain coffee estates, responsible for growing Blue Mountain coffee beans.  Blue Mountain coffee is a specific designation for coffee grown in the Blue Mountain range at a height of 3000 ft or above sea level - conditions in this area are ideal for growing Arabica beans which have a narrow band of climates in which it may survive.  It's some of the most desirable and hence most expensive coffee in the world.  Whether it is the 'best' or not probably is left up to the individual palette, but as a non-coffee drinker, this stuff was GOOD.  Unfortunately, the world doesn't get very much of it because of it 80% is exported straight to Japan.  After learning about coffee, we were brought on a walk up the mountain, which presented us with some gorgeous views of the area and Kingston.  I really liked this spot, and it's a plan while we're here to hike up the mountain to see the sunrise.  That night, we saw the sunset.
City and sea

First signs of people!  Some of the new volunteers and our coffee guide, "Lovejoy" (he said it was his name, I'm not making it up)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Work and Lime Cay

So Monday was the first day of work.

We got to the Dispute Resolution Foundation ("DRF") at around 9:30 to a meeting where everyone got introduced and we had a brief overview to the organization in general.  They told us that every Monday morning at 8:30 they had weekly meetings.  Talk about dedication.  Not only getting in at 8:30 in the morning, but having to get brain function started for a meeting every week at that time.  I hope there is a large fresh brew of coffee that day.

The organization provides alternative dispute resolution ("ADR") services, i.e. mediation and arbitration, across Jamaica.  On a broader level, they seek to achieve positive and peaceful relations between citizens, government, organizations and corporations through a democratic and restorative justice framework, which includes youth and community outreach programs.  (I was given something like a press kit to read ;)   The organization also seeks to extend its reach through its model of countrywide service centres to across the Caribbean.  Noble goals that will require a lot of focus and perseverance.  There's a lot of work to be done, funding is scarce and the country is only starting to see recovery from its recession.  But that's what the volunteers are here to help for!  Or at least we will try.  Anyways, that's a bit of an overview of the organization and the general task at hand.  I'll talk more about the experiences and work as they arise.  So far, we've mainly been getting to know the organization and its people.  We're having in-country training for the rest of the week.

On Sunday (I'm doing reverse order so to make up for a boring beginning, I'll tell about the fun stuff last), some of the volunteers went to a local beach near Kingston called Lime Cay.  We started by taking a couple of buses - taking buses in Kingston is another post in itself - that found us in Port Royal, which is a small port town just outside of the main city.  It's a neat little spot with an interesting history.  It used to be a bustling port and home to pirates [of the Caribbean (!)] and with them, came all sorts of trouble, gaining the town a bad rep (or good depending on who you were at the time).  That is, until a major earthquake sank half the town in 1692.  Since then, it's never been the same.  But as a result of its history, it's a neat spot for scuba diving where you can see sunken ships and the city that sank.  I haven't been able to do this yet, but would hope to some time within the six months.. who doesn't want to see sunken pirate ships?! 

Instead of an underwater excursion, we ate at a nice restaurant called Gloria's, which specializes in seafood - recommended to take a visit if anyone's in the area.  After food, to get to Lime Cay, we had to take a boat / ferry to the island.  Lime Cay is essentially a small deserted island.  So despite my lack of swimming abilities, I went along for the ride on a fisherman's boat.  Felt like a roller coaster.. except no loops, but also with no safety bars.  Luckily there were no tropical storms that day.  (I'm gonna get myself killed one day if I keep this up, haha)  The island itself was great, a nice little spot that you can just relax and hang out, or swim if you're so inclined.  So went my first excursion in Jamaica, but hopefully not the last.  It was also a good time where I got to know some of the other volunteers in the country.  Any description I give probably won't do the trip justice..


Curry fish!
Spot of fishermen boats where we found our transportation provider, Mitchie

The island.. our boat did not look like those yachts

Kingston from Lime Cay.. looming clouds signalling it's time to go back

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Last week, one of the other volunteers told us about this great place, Scotchies.  She said it would be too packed on a Friday evening, so we didn't end up going before. 

And since we, the new volunteers, had no idea where it was, for the week we had free, we couldn't go! Then yesterday, we found out that it was just at the end of Chelsea St., which was the street our hotel was on (!).  And here I was thinking, "you mean all this time, it was just down the street? I hope this place sucks." So we ventured over yesterday afternoon for lunch and it was delicious

It's a really nice place because of the way they set up the restaurant, you get to sit and eat in these little shaded huts after getting your food.  I got a jerk pork this time, which again has redefined the jerk food experience for me.  It's like BBQ pork + jerk, which = awesome.

Other than that, I've just been getting set up in the new apartment.  Getting a bit of food, pots and pans, etc.  Then on Monday, it's time for work!  Woohoo.

Dining hut

Anxiously waiting for food

The food


Thursday, October 21, 2010

On borrowed internet from the neighbours. 
I moved all my stuff to the new place.  It’s a nice place that’s a little out of the way, but it’s more than enough space for me, and was fully furnished.  I’m sitting with a fan on but no A/C to save electricity.  The landlady thought I would be using something like $5,000 JMD of electricity a month (it’s in our lease contract that if I use more than $7,000 JMD of utilities, I’m paying extra) – I’m out to prove her wrong and my goal is to see if I can use like $2,000 JMD a month in electricity.  Electricity is a bit of a big deal here because it seems to be relatively expensive.  It was tough trying to get the landlady to agree to putting in utilities into the rent price (CUSO-VSO will only cover base rent and not extra utilities).  This is probably to prevent people from blasting A/C all day - it's definitely tempting to do so.
I took a visit to the Mega Mart after dropping off all my stuff.  It’s essentially a Costco / Walmart for Jamaicans.  I’d say it feels more like a Costco, but without having to get a membership.  I realize I need things clean now and I attribute that to someone at work (D&T).  The first things I buy is not food or drinks, but cleaning supplies.  I’m going to make this place squeaky clean by midnight.  I took a second visit to the Mega Mart to buy some cooking supplies.  After making the place clean, I'm going to set up to be an iron chef.  :D
Next mission will be to fill the fridge with Red Stripe.
In between my place and the Mega Mart, there's a place called Lucky Chinese Restaurant.  It looked completely empty inside but it was open.  I was craving some Chinese food so I went in.  Boy oh boy, broccoli beef with rice never tasted so good.  I'll be back there again.
Home for the next six months.

Kitchen and dining area
Living area

The bedroom  :-)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Signed a lease and moving in today!  Won't have internet for a few days though so this probably will be my last blog post for a little bit.  Farewell Indies Hotel, it's been nice getting to know you.  You've been clean, cozy, and came with free wireless internet, which were all very much appreciated.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

City Adventure

During the day, I stopped by the Devon House, which is a mansion built by one of the first black millionaires of Jamaica.  It now stands as a heritage site which people can tour.  There's also a place to eat ice cream, have a drink, or people can just sit outside in the shade and play.  It's a nice, local place to be, so I made my stop there.

Next thing I know, I'm trying to decipher Jamaican patois while talking to a local who approached me on my rock in the shade.  Man, was it hard to understand what he was saying.  I could pick up a word here and there, but he really had to break it down for me (I have six months to at least understand).  Eventually, we exchange numbers and say we can link up later.  I agree to a meet up later in the evening.  All of a sudden, I'm thinking, what if this isn't such a good idea..  How much do I know about this guy.  I can't even understand half the things he's saying!  I prepare myself for the worst, fully expecting it could be a set up (as could happen anywhere).  I would've been more comfortable if he was my neighbour, but he's just some guy who sold papers that I met in the park.  I left everything except for essentials in the hotel room so I could prepare for a quick getaway if need be.  If something happened, I was ready to run like Usain Bolt, only much.. slower. 

In the end, as pumped as I was, nothing happened.  We went to Half-Way Tree Park, which is another open area in the city where locals - families, teens, and couples alike were just hanging out.  There were rooftop parties, gambling stalls and street vendors on the streets, all apparently, legally.  No stores were open and there was no big night market - people were just out and about on a Monday night of the long weekend. 

While in training, I was told to go out at night with a local first (Kingston isn't much of a tourist destination); I figure I would go with one of the volunteers who had been here for a bit.  Instead, I got an early tour and it turned out to be a good way to see a bit of the city.  Adventure in the city? Check.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I don't know if it's a regular occurrence for this time of year, if its year-round, or if it's just coincidence.  But right around 4PM every day, for the past few days, there's been a consistent downpour.  It's been as dependable as the sun.  Yesterday I made the mistake of trying to walk and explore just before 4PM and on my way back, sure enough, I got caught in one of these.  Luckily I didn't bring my laptop out so I could just let myself get soaked as I continued to walk in the rain, like I was in some kind of pop music video. 

I've never been much of a rain person.  But each day when the downpour kicks in, it's a comfortable and relaxing time of day where I can take a moment to update this blog, and catch up on my reading.  While doing this, I'll open up the door of my hotel  room to take in the sounds of the rain and some fresh air.  After the sudden downpour, and with it, the release of humid air, the evening then becomes a very nice time to go out and find some dinner.  It's a great sequence of events that I could get used to.  But then, soon I'll have to start working, and I'll be inside the whole time. Boo.  Sometimes the rain does cause flash floods because the drainage around some parts of the city can't handle the sudden downpour.  This is again, Boo.

Today we went around the city to find some apartments to rent.  At 7:30AM we woke up to check the classifieds in the Jamaica Gleaner.  The paper, as I've been told, will update with new rent listings at 12AM Sunday, but much to our chagrin, a lot of the good places were already gone by the time we started calling!  It's either people started calling really early, or right after the postings at 12AM. Either way, the day didn't start out well for our band of four.  As the day went on though, we managed to find some good potentials with the help of our awesome taxi driver.  There's a couple of places in particular where I'll hopefully get a lease signed and moved into within the next few days.  Only downside (or plus side) is that one is unfurnished.  So my hunt may soon turn from living space to furniture.  But that'll come another day.

Ackee and saltfish with plantains and yams - breakfast!  I was hungry and didn't remember to take a picture until I already started, haha.

At the top of Indies Hotel

Just outside my room

Reading material

Friday, October 15, 2010

Good Night

On day two I met with a couple more volunteers that have joined at the Indies Hotel.  After an early cup of coffee and orange juice, our mission for the morning was to get some Jamaican Dollars and get our cell phones working in Jamaica. 

If there is one thing that reflects the modern times of Jamaica (there's more, but this in particular is ubiquitous), it's the wireless telecom industry.  Digicel, Lime, Claro - they are everywhere in [New] Kingston.  People have Digicel branded wear for reasons I am not sure of, and you have no problem finding places that sell talk time credits.  The ads for the three companies are everywhere.  I need to get a picture of the Digicel HQ store in Kingston, which has been the brightest and most noticeable store that I've come across here.  Getting set up with a cell phone is fairly simple and tourist friendly - purchase sim card, credits, and go!

In the afternoon we met Tarik, the CUSO-VSO Jamaica representative.  Although he'll admit to not being very good with administrative matters, when it came to discussing the various programs and initiatives in Jamaica, I believe there would be no one more knoweldgeable or inspiring on the matters.  After learning more about what's currently in the works, it was comforting to know that he was at the helm of the operations.  On another note, I was told before during training, and now am able to see for myself, people will generally be formal when greeting others so first contact will open with "Good Morning" or "Good Afternoon".  Today, I was told that includes "Good Night", which when you think about it, makes sense!  I haven't heard it yet, but I imagine I would have to get used to hearing "Hello, Good Night" without thinking that was the quickest conversation ever.

For dinner and to cap off the night, we went to Sweetwood.  I had some jerk lamb, which was delicious as was the mango / orange / pineapple juice that accompanied it.  A perfect refreshment to cool down after a day of walking in the sun.

Jerk lamb and festival

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Yeaaaaahhhh mannnnn.  I arrived - safe and sound.  Woke up at 4:30AM to take the taxi to YYZ - Terminal 1 and at approximately 11:30AM, I landed in Norman Manley International Airport.  Similar to what the past couple of weeks has been like, I didn't have much time to think or feel about what was happening as I got up for the airport.  In a blur of events, it feels like I just finished training in Ottawa, hopped onto a taxi, checked in and departed for my flight via Air Jamaica. 

Next thing I know, I'm in 30 degree (celsius) weather, and realize.. "this is what the next six months is going to feel like - not bad!"  Of course, the downside is I don't think I'll get much snowboarding action until next season.  But it'd be great if I could hear stories or see pictures of others on the slopes. And I don't know if I'll find any volleyball action either, but I'll have to do some digging around.

Even within the first day of arriving, I've seen a bit of what I've been told to expect.  Took a walk to absorb some of the sights, sounds, and smells; on my journey for the day, some locals in a van passed by and yelled "mista Chin!" - as I have been told many asians are called here; and my first meal on Jamaican soil involved the consumption of my new friend Red Stripe.  To those curious, our Canadian counterpart bottle of Red Stripe advises us to "Drink responsibly", while this bottle in particular which I had, did not.

P.S. It was great seeing many friends and family prior to departure.  Canadian Thanksgiving having just past, I am thankful of all the great people I know and love that make life in Toronto, Canada a place called home.  Keep in touch everyone!  If there's any skill testing questions sent my way, I'll do my best to answer them.
Just arrived
My temp home - Indies Hotel
Red Stripe