Friday, July 20, 2012

Junot Diaz, in his novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, recounts the protagonist's trip from New York to the Dominican Republic to see his family. The novel, though about the Dominican Republic, is startlingly evocative of the entire Caribbean. Oscar, the novel's hero, talks about the "whirligig that was life" in his family's homeland. He lists the sights--the cops, the poor selling peanuts at intersections, the beaches, the "snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks," the jokes, the music...but continually punctuates this list of spectacles with the "mind-boggling poverty" that he sees everywhere he turns.

I'm in the Caribbean, with the beaches, the snarling streets, the poor selling the peanuts at the intersection, the music. I'm in Jamaica. It feels strange to write that, now, as I sit in my room getting devoured by mosquitos and with a pounding dehydration headache. When will I learn to drink the water I haul everywhere I go? It's been years since I lived and worked here as a volunteer and this is my second return trip. Hi, Jamaica, remember me? The mosquitos sure do.

Logistics and history aside, it's hard to keep straight what was past and what is present on these visits back to the place that I once felt I owned. I forgot how to get to Barbican, and I forgot which one was the passing lane. The right one, right? Babies are kids, kids are smart-mouth teenagers, teenagers are grownups. Grownups, dammit. When did that happen? When did Nikki's baby become this shy child who doesn't know me? C'mon kid, you loved me once. Come here, come play.

But, in the words of Diaz, it is the "mind-boggling poverty" that most throws me for a loop on these return trips. When you live among the grit and the grime and grind of hunger, poverty, and disease, it's no sweat. It's a day at the office. If you're lucky enough to have a job that lets you participate, you do what you can to listen, to organize, to network, to link the poor with some zinc and a few seeds, or a chicken, or a homework group, or a library, or a hug. And nobody hugs like a Jamaican child. No-body.

But now, I'm superfluous. Entirely superfluous. I may not be frightened of the poor selling peanuts at intersections, and I sure don't blink at the rusting zinc shacks, but there isn't a thing I can do about the problems I watch my friends endure. The sixth grader who straight-up dropped out of school? The elderly man slipping into dementia, alone and forgotten? The kids so hungry I can count their ribs? Mind. Boggling. Poverty. And no way to participate. My redemption lies in my reason for being here, for this return trip is no vacation. This return trip puts me, for the first time, into the "staff" category of my beloved Passionist Volunteers International. I'm here to assist. To help the new tenth (tenth! can we even believe it? who woulda thunk!) group of volunteers transition into their new life. It is a blessing that redeems me and gives me hope. Bring it, mosquitos. Bring it.

This trip, this experience, these mosquito bites, give me the opportunity for meaning. I can see my friends, my friends for whom life remains relatively unchanged. I can spend time with the new volunteers and impart what little knowledge I've jealously guarded and retained. Mind boggling poverty? Of course. But returning to this whirligig of life grants me participation, grants me salvation. I'm back, Jamaica. Come here, come play.

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