Culture Shock

One of my first jobs when I moved to Chicago was at a Rand McNally map store. We sold a series of travel books that, in my opinion, was one of the best: Culture Shock. It had the requisite information - hotel destination, lodging, and sightseeing recommendations - but also included background on local life, customs, and etiquette. Its writers were more of the "adventure traveler" types who were familiar with the remote corners of these places, likely because they had spent time living there as Peace Corps volunteers and the like.

I wish I had the book on Jamaica. My time here so far has been a culture shock of sorts following the steep learning curve of developing country realities. The priests for whom I am working have me on a probation period of sorts, determining if I have what it takes survive in a place that blends a certain level of structure with doing whatever one needs to do to get the job done, and with scarce resources to do it. In short, ensuring I can persevere. I do not know how ones determines that, but they have been here since the mid-90s and practically built their operation from scratch, so I suppose they know it when they see it.

My arrival was relatively smooth. In the weeks leading up to my arrival I had been in touch with Monsignor Mike, the Superior General of the particular missionary group I will be helping. For all of the data exchange prior to my departure, the one detail we overlooked was that they had no idea who to look for. I never sent them a photo and they never asked for one. This dawned on me as I made my way through customs and security at the airport in Montego Bay. I then assumed I would look for someone holding a card with my name on it. I assumed incorrectly. Besides, given the throng of people and taxi drivers into which I was thrust upon exiting the airport, I do not know I would have found such a person holding such a card.

I exited the airport and was besieged by taxi drivers; my first smack of culture shock. My last overseas experience was a trip spread among the UK and the Czech Republic a decade ago. Taxi cabs there lined up neatly and took passengers from a first-in-first-out queue. Not here. "Taxi?" "Taxi?" "Taxi?" "Taxi?" No matter how many taxi drivers I declined, two more were waiting to ask if I needed a taxi. I was acutely aware of how much of an open target I was. Swinging my head around trying to find someone who might be looking for the biggest fish out of water only exacerbated the situation. I walked over to a small food stand with some tables and tried calling the Monsignor. Apparently, looking like I had someone to call and something to do was enough for the taxi drivers to lose interest in me.

For the next 40 minutes I clung to that little patio like in was home base in a game of tag. My phone does not work here and I finally had to ask someone if I could borrow theirs. After agreeing to a price of $5 (I had to talk him down from $10) I got a hold of Monsignor Mike and he told me the priest he sent to pick me up, Fr. Roland, was running late. He also described the person I should be looking for. Ten minutes later I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker to meet my party at the exit, which was still a scene of taxi drivers pouncing on the newly arrived like seagulls around fresh fish. I met up with Fr. Roland (who was not wearing a clerical collar) and Edgarton, one of the boys from the orphanage. We were quickly on our way and began the three-hour drive to Bull Savannah, where the priests live.

At first glance, three hours might seem like a long time for driving around an island about the size of Connecticut. However, the roads are hardly wider than some Chicago side streets. The average speed limit is around 30 miles per hour, and any posted speed limit is a mere suggestion. People drive as quickly or slowly as they want. In the wider open spaces, it is definitely the former. If someone is creeping along and slowing you down, you simply accelerate and go around them. No big deal. However, passing - or overtaking - becomes a big deal, if not a bit like a game of chicken, when you pass someone with a speeding car coming at you in the other lane. This happens a lot, and it was a second dose of culture shock more jarring than the first. The roads here are not particularly straight. Curves and hills loom everywhere, and I do not believe they have the same formal rules about Passing and No-Passing zones that I am used to. The whole experience felt like being on a roller coaster without the assurance that everything will be alright when it is over.

What the drive cost us in time, it made up for in breathtaking scenery. We cruised through populated towns, small rural areas dotted with a few houses, around a mountain range, down through and orange grove, and finally found ourselves right up against the south coast of the island at sunset. The Caribbean Sea was a vast pool of orange and red light, and behind us a rainbow spanned a small mountain range where a brief rainfall had just given way to drier skies. If the priests had ordered me back to the States the next day it would have been worth it just to see that.

We made a brief stop at the orphanage to pick up some folks, one of whom is a fellow volunteer from Kentucky. As soon as I walked in the door I was surrounded by a bunch of kids clearly ready to play! A few of them continually stood back-to-back with me to see who measured the tallest against the new, tall, lanky guy. You typically do not need a physical experience like this to have perspective vis-a-vis the unfairness of life and how blessed some of us are while others are not, but they help drive the point home. A third bit of culture shock for the day. Despite their energy and enthusiasm, the kids in the home have a slight sadness in their eyes. Something innate tells them this is not normal, though they might not yet understand exactly why.

We wrapped up the last leg of the drive and arrived at St. Vincent Strambi. We arrived too late for dinner, but they saved us some food. The conversation was a whirlwind and I tried to keep track of people's names, where they were from, and languages spoken. In addition to English, I heard French, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, and obviously the local Jamaican Patois. When I responded to a question about my ethnic heritage - which is a long list of Western European countries - one of the priests, Fr. Sam, blurted something to me in Italian to which I could not respond. My grandmother's fluency was not passed on to subsequent generations. It turns out Fr. Sam has an Italian father and a French mother. He is a Frenchman but speaks both languages fluently. When I responded in Spanish, he easily changed gears easily. I would not necessarily call this culture shock, but it was unexpected.

My digs. Not exactly what you think of when you hear "living in Jamaica." But it works.

As the night came to a close, I was escorted to my quarters: a 40-year old, dilapidated, single wide trailer. Again, not really culture shock, but quite a difference from the luxurious digs I have enjoyed in recent weeks. Parts of the trailer are literally held together with duct tape, and I have been told not to drink the water that comes out of the tap for fear of what the locals call, “leaky belly.”

My room. All 64 square feet of it.

That was my first day, crash course, introduction to Jamaica. It looked nothing like what has been in my mind's eye for the last twenty years regarding volunteering here. But it was exciting and fully outside the realm of anything I would consider a comfort zone, which is in-line with what I have been looking for. Recall the coaching I received almost a year ago: this entire experience of trying to find a better use of me requires being thrown into situations where I am a complete and utter rookie.



#FirstPosts #Risk