Saturday, August 23, 2008

Praise be.

We all love the Olympics—we love raw talent and there’s just something about hearing your national anthem played as a gold medal is hung around one of your own. One of Jamaica’s newspapers, The Daily Observer, reported that more than two billion people around the world watched the opening ceremonies alone.

But the Olympics are more than evening entertainment here in Jamaica. Televisions in corner shops and homes are on constantly in order to follow the athletic achievements of countrymen. Location matters little—from Kingston to Negril, everyone watches with bated breath. Pride and patriotism, always present in Jamaica, have exploded to epic proportions during this Olympic season.

This past month, I was at the home of a parishioner to collect food bags that needed to be moved down to the church when I realized just what the Olympics mean to Jamaica. Mrs. Hylton was directing me as I dragged the rice sacks full of food down the hallway when one of her helpers, Celine, started shouting.

“Praise be! Praise be to Jesus! He’s done it!” Celine yelled loudly as she danced around the television set in Mrs. Hylton’s living room.

I pushed my hair out of my face, stopped struggling with the food bags, and headed towards the TV. “What’s up, Celine?” I asked.

Celine made the sign of the cross and wiped away a few tears. “Usain Bolt won the gold medal!” She grinned widely as she pointed at the TV. “Praise Jesus!” I looked, and saw a man clad in the blinding yellow and green Jamaican uniform perform some Jamaican dance moves before the crowd in Beijing. Bolt was so far away, but his victory was precious to those at home.

For weeks, Jamaicans speculated about the chances of a gold medal for their country in the 100 meter men’s sprint. They had pinned their hopes on two worthy candidates: Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell. Tyson Gay of the United States and Great Britain’s Tyrone Edgar were also eyed as being contenders in preliminary heats. But on August 16, 2008, Bolt broke a personal record, a world record, and scored Jamaica’s first gold medal in sprinting.

“We’re a little country, but we’re good!” Celine roared. “Thank you, Lord, for this victory! Praise Jesus! We’ve got a gold medal!!”

“Congratulations, Celine,” I said as I hugged her. “It’s a good day for Jamaica.”

“Yes!” she answered. “It’s a very good day for Jamaica! Oh, I’m just so excited! Praise be!”

I finished moving the sacks into the PVI van, waved goodbye to Mrs. Hylton, and drove up the winding dirt road to the church. My workday continued, but I couldn’t get the image of Celine dancing around the home of her employer, thrilled at this victory. Later on, I found out that there had been dancing and celebrations in the streets of Kingston and Montego Bay as well. People in the States may get excited when Phelps wins his eighth gold or when the women’s beach volleyball team scores a medal, but they don’t yell their thanks to God or riot in the streets. In Jamaica, where the citizens face poverty, violence, inflation, unemployment, and boredom on a daily basis, this is a big deal, mon.

As the sprinting competitions continued, Jamaica went on to win more medals. Each time, people danced in the streets, honked their horns, draped flags over their shops and busses, banged pots and pans, and praised God. Many of these athletes emerge from shantytowns and one-room board houses—they live in the same conditions as the rest of the country. Athletes like this provide hope in the face of unbeatable odds. If a tiny island mired in poverty can beat out countries 50 times its size, does that not speaks volumes about the spirit of the people? Does it not tell us something about the atmosphere of perseverance and tenacity that is present here?

I was not able to catch the medal ceremonies; as volunteers, our schedules are unpredictable and our access to television is unreliable. However, part of me desperately yearned to see the runners bow their heads as the medals were hung around their necks. I would have loved to listen as Jamaicans sang along to the chorus of their national anthem: “Jamaica! Jamaica, land we love!”

I am not Jamaican. I am a United States citizen, and I would have celebrated had Tyson Gay won that 100 meter sprint. And yet, I rejoice that this little country—my temporary home—can enjoy a sense of national pride and achievement. The medal count currently stands at 11, and I am so happy that I was able to be present for this country’s numerous victories. Congratulations, Jamaica. Praise be.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I have a complex relationship with dogs.

If you did a double take upon reading that statement, you’re not alone. A few days ago, I boldly said that statement aloud during a car ride with my community mates. They looked at me as if I were crazy. Maybe I am.

But, I do have a very special relationship with Jamaican dogs.

I have never been a huge dog person. The PVI community was split into two camps during Pittsburgh orientation: those who wanted a dog, and those who did not. Due to concerns about fleas and worms, I was an ardent proponent of the anti-dirty-dog-in-my-home movement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like puppies, (who doesn’t?) and I like clean dogs that don’t jump and don’t bite. I like Dave’s dog, Hunter. I loved my cousin’s dog, Bo. I adore Nicole’s dog, Geno. But, those dogs don’t seem to exist here. Rather, there are two types of dogs in Jamaica: ferocious guard dogs and pathetic strays.

Dog etiquette in Jamaica is as followed:
Be nice to ferocious guard dogs and maybe they will leave you alone
Carry rocks or pretend to throw a rock at the strays and they will inevitably run for their lives

During my first few days here, I tended to behave in the following manner regarding the canines:
Avoid them at all costs
Scream and put my hands out in a plea for mercy (which, actually, has worked fairly well thus far)

And then I met Mamadog. There are two dogs stray dogs that hang out at Stony Hill Hotel: Pupalups and Mamadog. Pupalups is pathetic, but, for reasons beyond my understanding, is beloved by the staff at the hotel. Mamadog is also pathetic, but is despised by hotel staff. (Side note: Pupalups and Mamadog are in a relationship, one I consider to be highly unhealthy.)

Mamadog has two activities: she roams the street, hanging out with other strays and picking at garbage or she haunts our apartment, begging for food and attention while wheezing desperately. At first, I despised her filth and her fleas, but then something happened.

The wheezing got to me. “Poor Mamadog,” I started to think, “she’s sick, and no one likes her.” I splashed a bit of water from my Nalgene on the pavement one day and watched her lap it up gratefully.

The next time she wheezed, I decided that she deserved to be treated with some dignity and got one of our dishes and poured water into it, much to the chagrin of my community mates. Mamadog drank that right up, and she even smiled at me this time.

Before I knew it, I was giving her food scraps and Jamaican biscuits on the sly, although some of the staff at the hotel told me not to give food to that “mangy brown stray.” I told her to keep my actions to herself. “Mamadog,” I told her, “I don’t want us to get into trouble.” She fully understood, and behaved accordingly.

I started asking her if she had been a good girl while I was gone during the day. Who was I becoming?

It got worse—I snapped a few pictures. I was turning into one of those creepy people who send out Christmas card pictures that feature only their dogs.

Then, I told her that she was better than Pupalups and she should empower herself and realize that she doesn’t need a man to validate her existence.

See what I mean about having a complex relationship with Jamaican dogs?

Being in Jamaica has cured me of my dislike of the canine species. We people are not so far removed from dogs. Sometimes, we are the ferocious guard dogs that protect ourselves and those we love at all costs. Sometimes, though, we are the pathetic strays begging for love.

Mamadog, in her own filthy, fleabag way, reminded me that every living creature deserves love and attention, particularly if they are desperate enough to beg for it. Somewhere along the line, however, I stopped trying to have philosophical discussions on the nature of healthy romantic relationships with a dog.

But, I haven’t stopped giving Mamadog water and food behind the backs of hotel staff and spending some quality time with her each day. Mamadog isn’t a puppy, she isn’t clean, and she’s certainly no Geno, but I’ve moved past that now. She’s just another creature in this world that needs some love. I came to Jamaica to accompany the poor and to develop relationships with those in a different culture. Who is to say that one cannot do that with a dog?

So, Mamadog, this one is for you.

Monday, August 4, 2008

God is constantly showing me new things and making me think differently here. Today, I spent a considerable amount of time on the telephone with my mother. Making a call for either one of us is never easy: access codes, menus, pin numbers, and area codes need to be hurdled before the phone number itself can be dialed. My phone credit expired, and she had to call me back. Talking to her was wonderful, but I was frustrated with inefficiency, the way I have been numerous times here. I hate phone credit!!!!

But then I encountered Frank, the handyman here at the hotel. Frank has been immeasurably kind to us: he cleans dog messes off our doorway, does various repairs, sweeps the stairways, and always goes above the call of duty for us, whether it be giving us the choicest avocados or carrying my 58-pound suitcase down 50 stairs for me on his bony frame--in the pouring Jamaica rain!

Soon after I had finished my phone call, Frank pulled me aside and held out an ancient cell phone and two Digicel phone cards. (Digicel is the service provider on the island: you buy a prepaid card and enter it into your phone so that you have credit stored to make calls.) He asked me if I knew how to put credit onto a phone. I spent some time sitting with Frank, teaching him the complicated process of codes, voucher numbers, and access codes. Realizing his difficulties at understanding numbers, I made up a few fun names for the symbols and then made a color-coded chart with the phone symbols so that he would be able to check his balance in the future.

“You good, man” he said to me. He commented that I knew how to read, that I knew my numbers, that I could write and draw quickly, and that I knew how to drive. He struggled to find the words to explain his amazement, and then laughed. “You got the training when you were small, man?”

Yes, Frank. Like the rest of my American community mates, I have had a life of unbelievable privilege. I was given not only basic training in numbers and letters, but I was granted four years at one of the better colleges in the Southern New England area. Making a phone call in Jamaica is an inconvenience, not a confusing obstacle course of letters, numbers, and symbols that make no sense to me. I asked Frank how long he had had the phone:

"Six, maybe seven month."
"Seven months with a phone, Frank, and you're just putting credit on now?"
"Yeah, man."

Six or seven months with a cell phone, but with no means to make the phone call. He was profusely grateful, and kept telling me how good I was. I’m not good, Frank. I’m just the recipient of the benefits of the developed world. Frank is the good one. Frank has been a good friend and has done everything to make sure we are happy, safe, and comfortable.

I’m not sure why Frank asked me to help him today. Maybe it’s because he always sees on my morning run and we chat, maybe its because he saw me effectively making and receiving phone calls to my family today, or maybe it's just because I'm American and he figured I'd know how to do it. I was thrilled to be able to spend some time with this man. He does so much for us, and to be able to share my basic technical knowledge of cell phones is a joy. I’m not sure who he will call, but my meager few weeks here have shown me just how precious communication is.

I am grateful to have Frank as a friend. And, I am grateful to Frank for reminding me just how easy I have it next to the rest of Jamaica...and for challenging one of my concepts of reality.

That is how it is in Jamaica: small interactions rock my world and my definition of life. The triggers are not earth shattering; they are not announced with cymbals and thunderstorms. It is my evolving thought process that is earth shattering. I look forward to some more challenges to the way I view the world.