Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wrap up

I should have done this at least a few weeks ago, but better late than never!  Never late is better, but I guess a part of me is still running on island time.  My six months ended as of April 15, 2011 and it'll be a six months that I'll remember.  As much as I intended to arrive as a volunteer and bring my skills and knowledge to the table, I came away from the experience with much more.  I gained not only experiences and perspectives, but also friendships and memories.

Don't be dismayed at good-byes

A farewell is necessary before 
you can meet again.

And meeting again after moments or lifetimes
is certain for those who are friends.

So long Jamaica, see you soon.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


During the week, I took my usual route to work during the days.  But one of these days was different than the rest.  One morning the coaster (minibus) was full by the time I got on (it doesn't stop more people from getting in).  That in itself isn't so different because my morning coasters are usually full to the point where it's like a game of twister trying to find a nice place to stand and something to hold onto.  This time, it was crowded enough that I stayed on the step of the bus.  Usually the conductor or 'ducta will say step up, telling you to get off the step and actually into the bus.  I figure it could be because he thinks either that it's more comfortable inside the bus and he would rather I be comfortable or that it's not as dangerous inside the bus and he would rather I be safe.  Since coming to Jamaica and seeing the coasters, I always wanted to stay on the step and hang outside the door.  That seemed to be the cool thing to do on coasters.  So on that very morning, I did what I always wanted to do and I graduated from being just a normal coaster rider.

It was in fact more comfortable since there's usually only two people on the step, and I'd say was safer too as there's something to hold onto without playing the game of twister.  Therefore, I conclude the step is exclusive.  And now, my Jamaican experience is complete.  Time to chill on the beach!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Morning

Kingston, Jamaica.  It's straightforward, in your face, full of life and bursting with personality.  The roads are jammed with taxi and bus drivers who seem to compete for who can go the fastest and talk with each other in a language of honks, even in gridlocked traffic; here, it's the bicyclists that come out as surprise winners.  As you walk down the street, you pass by higglers, bag juice and snack sellers, car phone charger sellers, all legitimate or otherwise, and everyone seems to be yelling at each other, at you, or at no one in particular, it's hard to tell.

And he rested on the seventh day..
Then you wake up on a Sunday morning.  You decide to step outside and there's only a few cars on the road.  You don't hear honking horns, and there's not too many people out on the road.  You walk around the neighbourhood and observe peace and quiet.

It's neat how different the city feels.  Today, as I walked to my local grocery store, it felt like I was back at home. Kingston is definitely a city of two faces.  Actually three faces - as a fellow volunteer, Dom, has pointed out, the city at night is again, decidedly different.  Perhaps it's because everyone's at Sunday service, or recovering from Saturday night's parties.  The city itself feels relaxed.  And I quite enjoy it.  We all need a day of rest every now and then to rejuvenate and recharge.

Iced tea on the balcony.  Too bad the grill's there

It took me five and a half months, almost the entirety of my stay, but I found a Chinese bakery, or rather, the bakery found me.  As I visited my local grocery store, lo and behold, inside, they were selling these buns.  A lady comes in every Sunday to sell, and I only have gone on Saturdays or during the week.  Mission accomplished.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Stone Love

East Japanese Restaurant 6th Anniversary Customer Appreciation Party @ Stone Love

On a Sunday night, a friend mentioned that there were tickets to a customer appreciation party the next night, being Monday night.  The host was East Japanese Restaurant.  Having eaten there once, I appreciated the food they have there for sure.  If I ever wanted to eat some good sushi, I know where to go.  However, with their price point, I find I don't have cravings for raw fish all that often here.

In any case, regardless of how much or how little I personally frequent the restaurant, someone frequented the restaurant enough to get some extra tickets to the event.  I figure, even if it's a Monday night, I'll hang out, and if there's a chance I get to have some more of their food, why not?!  We drove to the parking lot of one of the plazas I pass by frequently, and I thought, I don't remember seeing any type of venue here...  And it was true, there wasn't.  Instead, we hopped in a shuttle bus going to a spot a block down the street.  Literally, a block.  Only in Jamaica.  After the night was over, we walked back to the parking lot and it took us no longer than two minutes.  But still, we were shuttled over.

Turned out to be a nice spot, that had a good vibe.  The free food and open bar might have had something to do with that.  What I think was the neatest thing though was the mutual respect and appreciation the two cultures have for each other.  Jamaicans and Japanese.  The Japanese are probably some of the most frequent tourists to Kingston, which may be like a mecca of music and culture for them, but it really isn't the tourist hot spot.  Jamaicans I think are just very warm, welcoming, and supportive to those who arrive with an open mind and embrace what the country has to offer.  A simply yet effective gesture of this support was a donation box that was passed around in support of the quake.  This night occurred shortly after the earthquake so it was nice to see how in-tune and supportive everyone was being by helping out in any way they can.

That night was really cool.  But these days, even the nights are starting to get hot.  I thought that I was starting to adjust to the heat midway through my placement here - thought I was starting to live like a Jamaican.  Now I realize that I just happened to have some good timing.  Even though the weather doesn't fluctuate too much, i.e. no snow, the difference in temperature is definitely noticeable from the winter to the summer.  I look forward to cooler weather again when I get back to Toronto, which is in less than three weeks time.  But I always say that if I complain about the cold, I can't complain about the heat.  So who am I to complain!

The evening before our Blue Mountain hike (see previous post)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Blue Mountain

Saturday afternoon
1:30PM Car Rental
Following the advice of a friend who did the hike before, we rented a 4x4 vehicle.  This took a little longer than expected because the customer service representative pretty much forced us to take their insurance, even though we had full coverage on a credit card.  It was annoying, and it didn't make any sense, but we wanted to get on our way, so we caved and went with the full coverage insurance from the car rental place.  It was an example of an unyielding adherence to the "rules" that customer service reps display here.  Not a good start to the day, but not the end of the adventure, we pressed on!

2:30PM Lunch and supply run
We stopped at the supermarket to prepare for the adventure, stocking up on snacks and drinks to keep us alive and alert for the adventure.  Then we went to the food court for lunch.  Funny thing is that I went to a Chinese fast food place, and the other two Canadians went to get sandwiches and coffee.  When in Rome...  we still eat what we want (at least when we have the option).

5:00PM The drive.. and arrival at home base
After lunch, we went on the road.  It was a bit of a drive and by the end of it, I fully understood why we were told to get a 4x4.  A Yaris (the typical rental car), for all its might and glory, would never have survived the drive.  We passed over rough unpaved roads, crossed a river and went up some real steep hills.  But we made it eventually to Wildflower Lodge, our base camp.  Here, we would park the car, rest up and begin the trek.  But first, we explored the area a bit and walked up a nearby hill to see the sunset. On the hill, we could see some of the crops being raised - scallions, onions, some herbs, Blue Mountain coffee, and there were also plenty of grazing goats.  It's refreshing to see people living on the land and very much at one with nature as it should be.  No need for high-tech agriculture, fertilizer or pesticides here.  Afterwards, we returned to the lodge for an amazing dinner cooked by our hosts (this one was a Jamaican meal!).  We capped the "night" with a drink of rum to help us get some rest before the hike.

Sunday morning
2:45AM Start
Rolled out of bed at 2:20AM, packed the bags and did one last equipment check before departing.  Being from the city, I wore jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, a pair of Nike sneakers, and a borrowed poncho and flashlight.  But I had determination and the trust that the much more prepared west coast Canadians, would light the way.

2:46AM - 6:00AM Journey
That trust and determination soon faded as we faced "Jacob's Ladder".  This was a portion of the hike which our guide said of the people who did quit, did so here.  After hearing that, I really did not want to be one of "those" who couldn't survive.  I think what gets people at Jacob's Ladder is not necessarily the steep incline.  It is fairly steep, and goes on for a little while, which poses a challenge for the unprepared.  But more than that, it's very early on in the hike, which is dangerous for two reasons: 1) excited and ambitious hikers set a pace to ascend the peak in record time, wearing themselves out, and 2) there's little chance to adjust to the altitude.  Not everyone gets to train in the mountains so the latter likely takes its toll on hikers and its effect is made all the more potent, the more #1 applies.  Either that, or I was out of shape....  but I think I'll go with my other reasons.

Eventually we made it past the "ladder" and plodded our way through darkness to the top, stopping every now and again to drink water and catch our breaths.  The sky was clear so we could see what looked like all the stars in the galaxy, as well the city lights in the distance.  Near the top it started to rain a bit and the closer we were to the peak, the more the rain poured.  Finally when we reached the peak of Blue Mountain, 7402 ft. above sea level, we were faced with an overcast sky and steady rain.  We made it in time for the sunrise, but chances were that we wouldn't see anything!  Disappointed, we rested for a bit, ate some of the food we brought to regain some energy and began our descent 20 minutes later.  On a clear sky you can see even Cuba from the peak - unfortunately, clear skies only happen 30% of the time.

6:15AM The way home
As we descended, the rain seemed to only fall harder until we dropped below the cloud cover.  After we dropped below the clouds, we were presented with a fantastic view of the mountain range.  We made it back to the Wildflower in about 2 hours and changed into fresh clothes.  Our hosts provided a cup of delicious Blue Mountain coffee, locally picked and roasted, to warm up and enjoy as a reward.  It was definitely enjoyed, and finally we thanked our gracious hosts and guide as we departed for the drive home.

Would I do it again?  Probably not.  But now I can say that I've climbed to the highest point of Jamaica.

Hike Blue Mountain - check.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Saturday Night Movie

There should be no big difference in going to the movies wherever in the world you are.  Yet, I still enjoy the feeling of going to the cinema every now and then, no matter where I am.  On Saturday night, I visited Carib Cinemas, one of the theatres in Kingston (not sure how many there are, but I know there's at least two).  The plan was to catch an 8:30 showing of Unknown, starring Liam Neeson.  Seeing as how I enjoyed the last Liam Neeson movie I saw, Taken, and since the movie poster looked pretty much identical for the two movies, I figured Unkown would be a fun flick to watch.  I know, it's not a Jamaican movie.  But at least I'd understand it.

I don't usually take the bus or go to the Crossroads area at night (though I go everyday to and from work), so the trip alone could have been called an adventure.  The city still takes on a different vibe and feel at night compared to how it is during the day.  Whenever I pass by Carib, which is right at Crossroads, I hardly see anyone there, so I always thought going to the movies was pretty unpopular here.  But bwoy was that ever further from the truth.  Now it seems to me like Saturday night is movie night, and that everyone goes to the movies.  Maybe, I thought, it's one of the few things to do between dinner and the club.  For whatever the reason, we had to sit in the second row.  Very unexpected, but it wasn't so bad - mainly because I could see the people in the first row.

So we sat down and started watching the movie.  It started slow, but was getting good, and then at about 60% of the way through the movie, the scene cuts and the screen goes black. My first reaction was that we lost the movie and our money - frustration.  Then I wondered if they would give us a refund or a free pass to watch another movie.  In a little while, the answer came, the letters surfaced on the screen - "INTERMISSION".  As it turns out, you get a washroom / snack break and after about 5 minutes, you come back to watch the movie where it left off.  And just before the movie restarts, a couple of commercials run for good measure to make sure you don't miss any of the action.  Surely enough, probably half the theatre stepped out and made use of the little timeout.  In my opinion, it broke the tension and atmosphere of the movie, so I could have done without the break.  But then again, I have taken a 14 hour flight without going to the washroom.  Nevertheless, after the 5 minute intermission, everyone filtered back into their seats and the movie finished running without a hitch.  I wondered though, where the idea of a movie intermission came from.  Are there other places that do this too?

For the movie: 7/10.  The experience: 8/10.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mediation: Art or Science?

Taking the Basic Mediators Course with the Dispute Resolution Foundation, I am getting to see what the organization really does.  What are some of its principles, and how it intends to effect change in Jamaica.  At the same time, I'm learning how to become a mediator.  By the end of the course, I can go out there and say, "Stop!  I'm a mediator, let's talk!"  On second thought, I'll take things step-by-step and integrate it into the way I deal with my own problems as they arise.

I find the mediation training provides a useful mindset and structural approach to solving problems, which is a lot of common sense.  It is outlined as a very structured 7 step process.  The tricky part is the application.  Being a mediator demands one to enter the process without bias - as a completely neutral presence.  Considering the nature of cases, which could involve any number of matters including violent ones, the mediator has to remain unbiased and unemotional.  You cannot insert your own judgment or bias.  You have to be fair in your body language, tone of voice, and choice of words and boy is it much harder in practice than it seems in theory.  "You mean I have to be fair to this thief?"  "Yes sir!"  "This rapist?" Yep!"  We all have our own biases from society and how we're raised, but more than that, we then have to disconnect the bad tendencies and habits wired into our brains.  There's probably some people who just cannot be mediators.  Despite all the instructional reading or studying, the only thing that can really prepare you is the practical experience.

We did an exercise today.  There were 5 or 6 groups doing the same role play.  Among the groups, there were probably 5 or 6 different answers when the question of "what is the issue" arose.  The issue identification is the crux of the mediation process.  If the mediator cannot nail the issue(s), the case is highly likely to go nowhere.  The diversity of answers really speaks to how hard it is to do (or how bad we all were at doing it).  The key was learning to ask the right questions.  Thinking about it, I drew a parallel to auditing (or consulting, or advisory, or a whole lot of other applications).  To get the information you want, or to draw out any useful insights, you have to ask the right questions. In mediations, you have to deal on so many possible levels.  A matter that might seem simple like a tenant owing a landlord 6 months' rent, could have some other underlying issues, for example, maybe the landlord has been getting numerous complaints from other tenants or that he really can't stand the smell coming from the tenant's unit.  These are entirely different problems to tackle than rent in arrears!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Of the parishes on the island, Portland is the one that is most often cited as the favourite, or the most beautiful.  It's not a tourist hot spot, and it's not a major urban sprawl.  It's natural, unspoiled Jamaica.  That's not to say it doesn't have its tourist attractions, but the ones that are there are less crowded and less noisy.  The cruise ships don't have a place to dock, and there are few all-inclusive resorts (I'm not sure if there are any actually). All in all, I think it makes for a really nice weekend getaway.  There are probably even more isolated and quiet areas of the island, but at the same time, I don't want to feel like I'm the only person around.

Last weekend, I went to visit the parish with some of the other volunteers.  We rented a car and drove up to Frenchman's Cove and hit Reach Falls.  We also stopped by to explore anything else that was interesting in between.  This time, I remembered to take my camera to snap a few shots.  Since they are few and far between these days, enjoy!

Crossing a random hand-made bridge

How did that get there?

Laundry day


007 knows how to live

Pastor Brown's house (has been in National Geographic, issue in 1985).  Seriously wacky.

Pastor Brown

View from Frenchman's Cove Resort Villas

Bottles of sauce... and ketchup! To go with the jerk pork and chicken
I feel bad, I didn't actually get any shots of Reach Falls, probably because I don't have a waterproof camera.  But in any case, it's one of my favourite spots and a really neat and fun activity to do in Jamaica.  You climb the falls, and in the process, a guide will take you through some small caves in the waterfall.  If you can swim, you can also dive off the waterfall and swim underneath the base of the falls.  Awesome!  Except I still can't swim.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some days while I'm walking the streets of Kingston, I start thinking I really enjoy being here.  Walking to and from Crossroads everyday between the bus stop and the office, I'll pass by the usual taxi drivers and stall operators (I use the term stall pretty loosely here, some vendors have a physical stall, some have a trolley or a cart, and some just have a tarp, which they lay on the ground to display their merchandise, which could be as varied as DVD's or clothes).  I appreciate the fact that there are people who aren't outside only to get from point A to point B.  There are vendors selling, there are taxi drivers yelling, there are people just hanging out and striking up conversations.  There's something lively about it all and it's refreshing to see since it's quite the opposite from what I would experience getting to and from work in Canada, i.e. bumper to bumper traffic.

There's also the directness of Jamaicans whereby they won't usually hide what's on their minds.  In an interaction between Jamaicans, they could look aggressive like they're yelling at each other, but in the next moment, their tone could take a 180 degree turn and they'd be laughing like they were best friends.  Sometimes when I'm looking for my coaster to go home, the conductor or "'ducta" will try to physically put me into their coaster, but if you tell them where you're going and it's not where they're headed, they move on to trying to acquire their next customer like nothing happened.  It's odd, but there's no hard feelings - just business!  That same 'ducta may show a polite and considerate side by stopping the bus and clearing room for a lady to grab a seat.  One time, I wondered whether Jamaicans get high blood pressure since it seems like they release so much energy in their daily interactions.  I don't know if there is really any connection between the two, but it was just a thought.  In any case, the way everyone interacts makes the city an even more vibrant and lively place to be.

I'm not sure if it's just in my head, but it seems like after Christmas ended and the New Year began, there is less tension on the streets.  People are at ease - less guarded, and more open.  Felt like around the Christmas time, the vendors, bus drivers, and taxi drivers were all trying extra hard to earn your money.  Now, while still lively, they aren't as aggressive.  Whether it's in my head or in reality, I suppose it doesn't matter too much.  The bottom line is that now I can enjoy more of my time here and appreciate some of what I may have missed before!  But still, I learned my lessons from before and am not going to explore South of my office or walk any back alleys.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year Jamaica!

Apparently there was some event going on at the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) in Jamaica yesterday.  But I didn't know!  Instead, I ate some jerk pork at Scotchies.  Only when I went to the supermarket today to pick up some juice, did the cashier mention that the CBA usually holds some of events around this time of year.

I went today, and there was nothing except some people playing badminton.  Nah gwaaan!  I asked my taxi driver if anything else would be happening and he didn't know.  If a taxi driver doesn't know then chances are, it doesn't exist.  So since nothing real exciting happened, in honour of CNY, I took a picture of the most Chinese thing I have in my apartment now - my calendar which the supermarket gave to me a while ago.  It's from Oriental Foods which coincidentally is in Toronto, Canada.  Yes, they imported Chinese calendars from Canada.  I should have just brought some with me!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's in the bag?!

As I communicate and interact with more people, particularly as part of my job, I seek out and absorb a lot of information.  At the moment, I'm in a situation where I have to reach out to collect information, but at the same time, am faced with a reluctance on the other side to provide it.  This is a situation sometimes found at clients, but is a bit of a different scenario here.

To explain the scenario, the person I was talking to at the time mentioned a Jamaican phrase that goes something like "don't buy a pus in a bag".  Meaning, if someone tries to sell you a bag saying there's a cat, you don't just buy the bag trusting that there's a cat inside.  So you don't think I'm making it up, I present:

His premise was that Jamaicans who go by this phrase are skeptical.  Therefore, if someone's going to be asking for something, he should be able to demonstrate why he's asking for it, and what the impact or result will be.  This sort of concept is fairly standard in my typical line of work, but it's something people might forget as we selfishly run through our duties to try and get our own work done.

Being a CUSO-VSO volunteer, there's advantages and disadvantages.  For one, we get an objective view point and can be perceived as unbiased.  This can be great, especially if we have to deal with two sides that don't meet eye-to-eye.  On the other hand, we are interacting with people with whom we have no prior experiences with.  This in itself also has its advantages and disadvantages.  However, in this case that I'm mentioning, it highlights the importance of building up the trust, credibility, and relationship.  Of course, adding cultural differences, and age differences (this one's for me specifically, as I'm the youngest one by far of the volunteers), serves to compound the importance of and effort required for developing said relationships.  Once you build that trust, credibility and proper working relationship, it makes progress and interaction that much easier.

I have a tendency to think of the most efficient way to complete a task.  The quickest path from point A to B.  I suppose all in all, more than anything else, this is a bit of a reminder for myself:  before taking on any project or work, get to know who you're dealing with.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Half-way there

This week is nearing the half-way mark of my placement (half-way point will be January 15, 2011).  It's hard to believe, but pretty soon, I'll be wrapping up.  Work has gotten into full swing with renewed energy in the new year.  We are going to try and promote the use of a network intranet, which will be challenging yet exciting.  As for the city life in Kingston, I'm feeling settled in.  All the hustle and bustle of the city - people in your face to take their bus, buy their stuff - it's become like ambient noise.

For the new year, I've also gotten some personal renewed energy.  I feel like I should be more productive, and mentally engaged with the world around me.  Starting in late 2010, I've been reading more about news, both locally and internationally, as well as getting into some of the books that I've brought here.  Although I don't have resolutions per se, this 'productivity' I suppose translates into being more focused, as I try to be each year.  Perhaps as close as I will get to making a resolution, is that I'd like to learn to swim while here in Jamaica.  I'm here on an island anyways!  Blue lagoon here I come.

Annnnd I haven't posted pictures in a while, so for the interesting technique in how I made my rice with no rice cooker, here it is!  Bowl, in a pot (I cover it to steam, but for picture purposes, the lid has been taken off).  This time in particular, I was lazy so I threw in some leftovers to be heated up as well.

Monday, January 3, 2011

and a Happy New Year

After a week 'vacation' in the cold stretches of Canada, I'm back in Jamaica.  To me, it was an irreplaceable holiday, despite being on the plane and on the road for both Christmas Day and New Years'.  Although a part of me wonders what the rest of the Christmas break would have been like if I stayed in Jamaica, if I had the choice, I would still do it again.  Except maybe I'll consider flying out of Kingston instead of Montego Bay - the 4 hour drive each way almost doubles the travel time.

Today was the first day back at work; it was a slow start as expected, but all cylinders will be firing soon enough for the next few months because that's all the time I have left here, and I plan to make the most of it!

But first, I think I need a bit of rest, no need to rush.