Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End of 2009 and the Beginning of New Decade

The evening is drawing in as the year comes to a close. At the beginning of the year I had no idea where I might be on Dec 31st 2009 but would not have guessed I would be in Kingston, Jamaica.

My ambition had been to be somewhere I could contribute and use the experience I have acquired over the years to make a difference if I could. That opportunity has certainly been provided here and in a place that is beautiful and challenging and offers more than I can in return. How fortunate I have been.

This year has been about all the things one learns from embarking upon a major change. For me the most valuable thing has been experiencing the generosity and warmth of others. The well wishes as my plans to take a year off emerged; the generosity of people I left behind and those I have met in Jamaica; and the support of Haley and Tasha as their home was rented and they ventured into the world of student loans!

Thanks to everyone for being part of 2009 and I wish you all happiness and prosperity for 2010 and the next decade!!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Delightful Christmas Holiday

Having Haley and Tasha here was really wonderful and we enjoyed a fine balance of days doing very little and days travelling around. As accommodation was either at home or provided through the generosity of friends I indulged in renting a car and this afforded us the opportunity to see places we could not have seen otherwise (and an opportunity to return to my roots and drive on the left!)

The beauty and scope of Jamaica continues to amaze. With access to a car we travelled all over. It is not a large island but the mountains make it slow to travel and short distances can take many hours. We missed Dunn's Falls as it took longer to get there than I had planned but an alternative, Mahoe Falls, proved stunningly beautiful, and was completely without other tourists. Much smaller, but the intimacy of the falls and the beauty of the surrounding gardens provided a lovely experience with a gentle guide, David, showing us round.
Out of Ochos we climbed into the mountains through Fern Gully. A twisting, overhung, verdant gully cut through rock with layers and layers of growth and a canopy that denies the sunshine.

Time in Kingston meant a trip to the Bob Marley Museum and insight into a very interesting period in Jamaica. Seeing the place in which there was an attempt to assinate Bob Marley is a graphic reminder of how violent the political environment was in the 70s. The house is a classic old Jamaican house, and Bob Marley's achievements as a musician and poet are very well presented. Even the cafe under large fruit trees is good and lunch of red bean soup was delicious. The evening had us scouring our ipods for Bob Marley tunes.
Then a quick trip downtown to the street vendors, noise and mass of people on the streets. Empty, crumbling and decaying buildings that are the ghosts of a thriving colonial port. It seems all the commerce has moved onto the streets and it is a challenge to the imagination to consider the possibility of "re-vitalising" this area, as is the government's current ambition. It does makes one consider what constitutes "vital" as there is certainly no lack of vitality in the market place commerce. There is however extreme poverty, refuse and crime, none of which are easy to accommodate.

Back to Montego Bay through Junction. Jamaica offers endless breathtaking drives and this one did not disappoint, rainbows and mountains, sunshine and sunshowers.
In Mo-Bay we relaxed, swam, enjoyed each other's company at Doctor's Cave. Christmas Day was delightful together on the beach, snorkelling and enjoying the hospitality of Sandals. Boxing Day (not celebrated here!) was spent adventuring to Treasure Beach, a wonderful area on the south coast with long volcanic sand beaches and rocks full of fossils. Fresh shrimp, pizza and lobster at Jack Sprat's, a cafe on the beach, seemed to be there precisely for us! This drive led us across large pastoral plains at the edge of the mountains, grazing cattle and productive farmlands in St Elizabeth Parish.

In ten days we saw lots of Jamaica and I gained a great appreciation of how much the island has to offer. I learned how to manage the initial interactions as a result of the assumption of being a tourist. There is frustration about the all-inclusives as it has reduced the potential income for many who service the tourist industry, fewer cars rented, fewer tourists adventuring beyond the tours included by the hotels, fewer people walking around independently. So back to dichotomies: all inclusives mean tourists have continued to come here through times of violence and crime, all-inclusives (particularly Sandals) partner with local NGOs to create job training opportunities and create jobs but they have reduced the potential for independent entrepreneurship, the frustration caused by this increases the assertive approach to tourists however, if one holds one's ground with good humour, the exchanges can be fun.
I would strongly recommend a trip to Jamaica and one that would include adventuring beyond the hotel on the beach....

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

It is Christmas Eve and I am enjoying a wonderful time with Haley and Tasha. Our Christmas will not be our traditional event with family and friends and I will miss those I usually get to see on Christmas Day. However, swimming, sunshine and the beach with the girls is also a wonderful way to celebrate the season!

This is the end of a very exciting year for me and I am so grateful for having the opportunity to explore new places, meet new people, learn of another culture and contribute to the well-being of the youth of Jamaica. Travel and being somewhere unfamiliar sharpens one's awareness. Jamaica has offered so much in such a short time and the time away from Canada has heightened my appreciation of what in incredible country it is, and what wonderful people I know there.

Warmest Holiday Wishes to old friends, new friends, family and colleagues. I hope you too enjoy family and friends and wherever you are, and may 2010 bring you good fortune and joy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Being a tourist

This is a different experience of Jamaica. My daughters arrived safely and we settled into a comfortable Freeport apartment loaned by friends.

I have found the role as tourist more difficult than settling in as a resident, and have to be aware of the potential of being taken advantage of at almost every decision. Already I have experienced two situations in which this has occurred. My pre-booked car rental did not materialise, and I had to scramble to find a car at the airport. Successfully achieved but not without its stress, and of course more expensive than originally planned. The second was yesterday when the girls and I had decided to adventure. Our plan was to go to Negril but we wanted to experience something other than beach along the way. We headed for Royal Palms Reserve and as we turned off we were told the reserve was closed and we should head to another, not far away. At the end of a lengthy drive and with the "kind" directions from a delightful young man, we arrived at Roaring Rivers. What we discovered was a local community that has taken the initiative to divert tourists to their mountain river village with hot springs, caves and lush flora. The place was interesting, the people pleasant, the fee negotiable but I certainly felt foolish about being conned so easily and wondered why all the deception, as we would probably have been open to the adventure anyway once we had seen our original destination. No harm done except perhaps to my pride and propensity to trust!
It is disappointing that spontaneity is probably not a great idea when one is obviously a tourist but the experience afforded an opportunity to see a local community off the beaten track, as well as a classic Jamaican tourist scam! Nothing like experiencing the country in its entirety!
The difference between being a volunteer and a tourist is that as a tourist one really is just a commodity, either for the Tour Companies (there are innumerable all-inclusives which have bought up and made inaccessible almost all the beach-front for miles at Montego Bay and east) or for the local hustlers who make every effort to acquire as much of one's holiday budget as possible. Having experienced so much kindness and caring during the first two months of settling as someone coming to contribute to the country, it is difficult to reconcile the difference as tourists do contribute but in a different way.

That being said, it is delightful to be on holiday, wonderful to have the girls here, and being able to drive and see more of the beauty of the country is really interesting, particularly as the girls' share their observations. Negril feels much more relaxed than Montego Bay, still reflecting some of the simpler times when hippies congregated there to enjoy the miles of beach, the rocky cliffs and caves and the gentle people whose life revolved around fishing. The next few days will be spent in Kingston, back to the noise and bustle!

Hard to believe the week will end with Christmas Day....

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas is coming....but not snow!

It was a busy week at work. Dispute Resolution Foundation had it's Annual General Meeting on December 11th. An occassion which provided the opportunity for the organisation to celebrate its many achievements of the last year. As is typical in Jamaica for most business events, it was quite formal but that did not diminish the enthusiasm with which the Board voiced recognition and appreciation for what the agency and the staff have contributed to Jamaican justice over the year. The Representative from the Ministry of Justice spoke very highly of the organisation and confirmed the Ministry's commitment to a partnership with DRF for the future. For an agency with less than 35 paid staff, the number of people served through the mediation, training and youth services is very impressive.

None of which seems to translate into security of funding in these difficult economic times. The part of my week that was not given to helping prepare for the AGM was devoted to scouring through Foundation websites looking for potential funding sources to sustain and expand the Youth Programme, writing and re-writing proposals to fit potential funding sources and challenging my creativity to add components to the Youth programme that will be of value but will also allow it to be considered for new sources of funding.

That being said, things are winding down as Christmas approaches. Schools will close on Dec 16th and the number of youth being suspended through the last two weeks (exam weeks) has been smaller. Conversations in the office have included discussions about the best fruit cakes, Christmas shopping and food and toy drives for the Garrison communities.

Decorations are everywhere with brightly adorned palm trees all through the city. And another of those dichotomies...palm trees and inflatable snow globes ???

On Dec 23rd three of the Kingston CUSO-VSO volunteer contingent will head home for Christmas and I am sad to say only one will return. Kingston is a challenging environment for international development volunteers and it has taken its toll on one of my colleagues. The other has stresses that do not pertain to Jamaica but are reflective of the difficult world many Canadians deal with - family residing in unsettled parts of the world that are subject to increased terrorism and fundamentalism. He carries great responsibility for a young man in his twenties and even so has devoted months and energy to Jamaica and others who are struggling.
My best wishes go with both these wonderful people.

I am excited and distracted by the imminent arrival of Haley and Tasha! I will leave work on December 16th and head to Montego Bay to pick the girls up at the airport. From there who knows....plans are few and Christmas celebrations in the sun will be something we create together!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Underlying tensions

As I move from first impressions to a deeper understanding of life in Kingston I become acutely aware of the difficulty in being a Jamaican. When I talk with people and tell them of the positive experience I have had since coming here the response, almost invariably, is "we're glad there is something positive about Jamaica". There is a pervasive sadness amongst people whose country is Jamaica. A sense of loss as they see their country slipping into what might be an irreversible trend of violence and financial disaster. Sadness that this beautiful island is known for its murder, rape and gangs. People live in constant fear, fear of personal violation, fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, fear that one of the garrison communities will erupt into gun and gang warfare again. Many people live a life of self imposed constraint, not moving around freely, locked and gated into enclaves. Those that are privileged live behind their security measures, guards, dogs, alarms, gates and bars, those that are not live in fear or are co-opted to survive. This is not confined to Kingston but is now extending to other towns, cities and even the countryside. And there is a sense of shame that the country has deteriorated to a place that is hard to be proud of despite amazing athletes, wonderful music and a plentiful land.

Yesterday the headlines in the 3 papers emphasised just how pervasive violence is and just how far into the institutions it goes. "Crazy Gunfight", "Guns For Hire" "Corrupt Cops Must Go". Jamaica has struggled with political tribal warfare, gangs and drugs and now is fearful that a generation of children think that violence is the only way to survive. The violence amongst the youth is what feels different about the current situation, the increase in violence in the schools and violence between children is what is troubling people most.

Dinner conversation last night turned to what are we doing here, as foreigners, trying to build capacity. Can we really do anything that will make a difference to those that are disadvantaged? It is a question I have considered a great deal since getting established here. I believe there are a number of ways we can help. We bring expertise that many of the NGOs cannot afford to buy and which builds the capacity within the organisations and these are the organisations that are taking on the issues. Within the context that I am working I believe we will help bring systems and processes that will reduce the stress and chaos in the organisation, freeing up energy for service delivery and creativity. In a larger context we can bring hope, we see potential and opportunities where those that have struggled through the decline are struggling to see ways out. We bring a voice that can challenge the status quo without fear. Asking questions that can promote discussions, offering suggestions that can promote creativity and bringing experience from other countries that reminds Jamaicans that although things are dark they are not alone in this struggle. By our very prescence, commitment and investment there is a message that says "we think its worth it, we believe there can be change" and this can be a powerful message in a culture of hopelessness. One of our challenges is maintaining our optimism and energy when we cannot offer solutions.
This week, as the big picture looked grim and daunting, I was asked to work with some of the students in programme, talking with each of them about how as individuals they can make different choices and take hold of their lives, and it was a good reminder that even of the big picture is hard to tackle, helping to change things for even one child is of great value. One day at a child at a time....I will strive to make each action count.

What others can do is help the economy by visiting this beautiful island where the beaches and coastal towns,waterfalls and mountains, and forests and plantations are stunningly beautiful. As a visitor, one is welcomed royally, cared for, and protected from the stress and difficulties.

Perhaps the upcoming weekend at the beach due to the kindness of friends, will lighten my sombre tone.