Look Lively, Jamaica

1 Jun

I try to go back to Jamaica every year to visit my community, to hang with the family who hosted me while I was in the Peace Corps, and to brush up on a culture and language that I once felt fluent in. I had recently visited sick Momma (RIP) and this trip, six months later, was as close as I could get to attending her funeral. Also, I visit Jamaica to feel one of my favorite feelings in the world, which is coming back from Jamaica into the United States.

So I arrived at the airport in Montego Bay, and the first taxi tried to rip me off as I walked outside into the sweltering heat. Sure, I maybe looked like an outsider, but on the inside, I’m a yardie. I rolled my eyes, told him to stop the car if that’s how much he was going to charge me, and I got out, choosing instead to walk the 45 minutes from the Montego Bay airport into downtown. Now, if you can imagine hot temperatures and a wall of humidity like I can, then you’ll understand how it felt to walk that cement lined road – with lots of horns and lots of crazy driving – into downtown Mo Bay Mo Bay Mo Bay.

This trip, I was starting on the north coast, a place where Tyra had lived and I hardly knew. But I wanted to see her and OJ — and last time they had come to Elim. So after eating some patty and Jamaican fruit (it was mango season), I boarded a bus to Ochi Ochi Ochi (why not Ocho, Ocho, Ocho?). Note: In my opinion the sweetest fruit in the world, with heaps of variety, can be found in Jamaican street markets.

Anyways, several hours later I finally made it to the stoplight in Salem where I met the wonderful Tyra, who was generous enough to let me stay with her for two nights. I wasn’t too familiar with this part of the island since my site had been so far from here (like a full 6 hours) but seeing Tyra was a priority.


Sister from another mister…and mother. But same Mamma.


Observation: It’s so sunny and people don’t wear sunglasses here.



My godson OJ, who was practically too cool to talk to me.



Darling Oral Amardae Andre Morgan.



Look at how gorgeous and not full of potholes the northern road in Jamaica is! Nothing at all like the road that led to my community.


As Tyra and I were in the car together, she was on the phone when it hung up on someone. She said: “mi phone hang up, it not have no manners.” I missed this country, I missed this language, and I missed her! She told me my patois (the language, which is also known as English-based Creole) has gotten way worse from when I lived here, which was probably true It will never be as good as it was then, which is okay as long as I can understand it.

As we kept driving along, a mongoose ran across the road and never looked back. Tyra pointed it out and reminded me that it was a sign of good luck! And you know what? I believe it did bring good luck, because not only did Tyra make it to work on time (which doesn’t seem like it would be good luck, but in Jamaica it’s very much so) but also, while she was away, I had some good luck of my own:

You know how when you go somewhere really hot and all you want is ice cream…and water, I guess, but mainly ice cream? Well, ice cream is pretty scarce in Jamaica. In fact, anything that gets that cold is pretty scarce in Jamaica. I think this is mostly (or 100% completely) due to the fact that electricity is so expensive. They rarely even have air conditioning, and if they do, it’s like air condition that’s still buffering. But — probably thanks to that lucky mongoose (or due to the fact that I was in Ochi and not Elim) — I came across a Scoopy’s ice cream shop. But as is sometimes the case with bouts of luck from a mongoose and granted wishes from rodents, you get what you want — but not quite in the way you ask. There were only 3 flavor options (fine! I only need one!). I chose  and ordered vanilla pine, which I mistakenly heard as “vanilla pie.”

Of course it wasn’t vanilla pie because (a) what is that? And (b) how would a mongoose granting wishes know that that is? Looking around the shop at other flavors — chocolate raisin, orange thyme (just kidding, but it’s possible), I realized that Scoopy’s choice was like Sophie’s choice… except with all bad decisions.

*Sigh*. I’ll tell you though, ice cream is ice cream, and good luck is good luck. I enjoyed my melty vanilla pine, ate the entire thing, said thank you, and my ice cream craving was put at ease (for about an hour).

It was also in Ochi that I also began my search for the best fried chicken. You haven’t lived…truly lived until you’ve had the fried chicken in Jamaica. It is absolutely glorious. And maybe it was my mongoose luck, but I definitely found what I was looking for.

Not only was this fried chicken incredible, but also it brought back so many memories of when I lived here. So it was tasty, but, especially with the rice and peas, it was also nostalgic.



Winner winner chicken dinner.


I headed back to Tyra’s to take a nice cold shower (she only has cold water, so, again, it’s like Sophie’s only choice, but this time the right choice) and went to bed. Just moving around in Jamaica is exhausting.

The next day I decided to treat myself, went to touch di road, and headed for a swim in the Caribbean Sea (which, no surprise here, is also not cold). Most of the gorgeous beaches in this part of the world are privatized and owned by resorts (some really shady business going on here, which is infuriating as a local), but I managed to walk far enough to find this fishing spot, where I went for a dip.



This picture says a lot a-boat this wonderful beach.



Victoria and I are both white but only one of us applied sunscreen.



Fishing nets or kids’ jungle gym?


I followed the exercise with a hearty breakfast. Because I was on the north coast, it was relatively easy to find exactly what I was looking for…


..a traditional Jamaican breakfast (I got mine without the saltfish, which although is the national dish, is also imported from Alaska. Oh, Jamaica.). The food was delicious and oily. And for those of you who don’t know (which is probably all of you except Patrick — hi Patrick!), Ackee is the yellow stuff in the middle that looks like eggs. It doesn’t taste like eggs — I wouldn’t say it’s better, but it is good and it is different — and it does actually grow on trees. I was so excited about eating a traditional Jamaican breakfast that I texted Tyra that I was eating Ackee. Since, you know, “Ackee” is not a word I use often, autocorrect changed it to say that I was eating a Jew. Talk about lost in translation. Along with my Ackee, I also enjoyed a side of bread fruit, which is more bread than fruit (and also grows on trees), and my favorite type of actual bread — festival bread, which is like a party in your mouth. Festival is so good that one time Patrick and I entered and won a hamburger cooking competition at Giant Eagle using homemade festival as the bun.

Speaking of party….
I was invited to my first Jamaican baby shower at Lisa’s (Tyra’s sister) . Now, baby showers are a huge deal in the US, but not so much in Jamaica. A lot of the guests at the party told me that this was also, actually their first baby shower too. But it did not disappoint, because it started 6 hours late with a prayer, and was filled with hilarious games and a ton of fun, photos, and laughter.



The beautiful mother-to-be, her husband, and her adopted sister.

Some of the best games included a race to see which man could put on a baby nappy on a stuffed animal correctly and, my favorite — pictured below — was the game where the men gave birth to their newborn balloons with no hands. The catch phrase for the game? “Daddy is good at getting the belly big, but now what does he do if him have a big belly?” Priceless.


Daddies with big bellies & balloon babies.


Another awesome part of being up north and being at the baby shower was that I got to meet the rest of Tyra’s family. I was able to meet her mom, who I had never met before, and her 6 siblings.



Such beauty (and facial diversity). That’s Tyra’s mom who will be 50 in December with her youngest, Tyra smallest sister, yellow.


Pulled Jerk pork,which I brought to the party.


So after spending a great few days with Tyra and her family, I headed out to Elim (which.. if you don’t know by now, you really gotta start paying attention) where my Peace Corps site was. I never had a problem sticking to my Peace Corps budget when I was in Elim — there was hardly anything to spend money on — and this trip so far had been cost-efficient because Tyra had let me stay with her. Rather than rent a car, and not just because I popped a tire  immediately last time, I decided that I would appreciate Pittsburgh more if I continued living like a local here in Jamaica. Not to mention that I had given Tyra all of my money for OJ’s schooling.

Now, the public transportation in Jamaica is efficient, but also very cramped and hot. And it took over 6 hours to get to Elim. So, since we stopped in lots of towns along the way, I got out every hour and a half, walked round, stretched my legs, convinced myself I wasn’t car sick (reverse psychology does not work), ate some fruit, and eventually caught another bus to the next town. It was nice to get a break from the smell, the heat, and the lack of space. It rained when I was in Mandeville, and within minutes, the streets were flooding because of horrible drainage designs, which meant that I had to walk through nasty, dirty garbage water. Time to get back on the bus.

On these buses, which are actually kind of just vans, we are required to sit 5 to a row. They lay out a seat with no back, a cross seat, to make more seating options. I had to take 6 vans or taxis to make it to my old community. Each time I was on a bus and someone wanted to get off I was ecstatic because that meant we were only sitting 4 or even to a row — so. much. room. It’s amazing when you’re so cramped that being cramped (but less cramped) will have you feeling grateful. Or if your seat doesn’t have a back but then you get one how nice that feels.


Jamaican me crazy, bus.


My first stop at the Brownstown market to get some fruit and really difficult-to-eat curried crab for the ride.


So as I got more inland, the thicker the patwa and the more aggressive the street vendors, and the fewer people were used to seeing foreigners. The marketing tactics included yelling and shoving the product in my face. Not very effective. I mean, maybe I’ll change my mind about buying a bootleg movie or banana chips but I’m definitely not going to change my mind, taxi driver, that I want to go to a different part of the island instead. Like, you’re not going to convince me I need a taxi to Negril.

All of the taxis were listening to the exact same radio station, which offered very strange medical advice (“if you drink water the correct way, you may never have to go to the doctor again”), and were spewing anti-gay statements.


Rasta on the way to Elim.



Just to give you some perspective.


There was so much loud music and tons of noise and bustle everywhere. But also just friendly people who want to interact and be seen. I was very happy and sufficiently sweaty when I finally made it to Elim.



Let me reiterate, it took the better part of a very hot, long, winding, aggressive day to get from Ochi to Elim.


Arriving home.


I stopped at a grocery store in Santa Cruz (no, not California) before I got to Elim because I knew there would be hardly anything I could buy once I arrived in my very rural community. And as I was strolling through the aisles of my old stomping grounds, I remembered how I would come here for fun when I was living in Elim. Yes. You heard correctly. I would come to this grocery store, which was not air conditioned, already dripping with sweat, and try to make decisions on what to buy, even though it was near impossible to make any kind of decision because I was so hot. They don’t sell  cheese or ice cream (where’s a mongoose when you need it?), and I hardly had any money to spend here at all, but still it was the most exciting thing I did. It was so exciting that in the second year of my service, I bumped up the frequency of my Santa Cruz excursions to once a week, even though based on the past year, I only technically needed to go once every two weeks. Walking through the aisles during this last trip, I couldn’t believe that this was what I did for fun.


Ex-home sweet home.


I had the taxi driver drop me off at the end of my old road. The one that me and momma used to live on. And as I was walking towards her old yard, I passed the house where I lived for two years. It was still as cute and quaint as I remembered, complete with all the lizards (thank god for them, they eat the mosquitoes!) and the ackee trees (not Jew trees) out front.


Rural, hot, beautiful Elim — “Nah, true!”



So fresh, so green, so beautiful…so hot…so humid.


I visited Momma’s grave. I wasn’t able to make it to the ceremony (although Tyra told me it was 6 hours long), but I did send what I could for her grave, see below.


Mommas grave .

It was slightly confusing because…what is that house? I’d never seen it before. I asked the family, and they also didn’t know that particular house. But it was explained to me that, as is  custom, they buried her with mini a house on top of the grave. And even though the house itself wasn’t sentimental in that it represented a memory, it held a lot of significance because the last thing we did as a family for momma was build her a house.


Grazing in the grass.

I was able to visit familiar faces: Dita, Pooh, Sofie, Ledah, Romy, Ninja, Carl, and Dicky. Sofie told me she had just gotten back from Trinidad. I was so surprised. “What?! Wasn’t that your first time out of the country?!” Yes it was. Here’s how that happened:


Seems like going to Trinidad for the first time might be a fairly normal thing, right? But the way she met her new friend is where the story truly lies. Sofie had been browsing through Facebook one day and searched people who had the same name as she did. She started up a chat with this other Sofie with the same last name from Trinidad, and they became fast friends with the other woman inviting her to come and stay with her if Sofie could just save up for a plane ticket. Anyway, that’s who she visited in Trinidad, someone with the exact same name as her who she had never met before. It’s baffling how Jamaicans use modern technology. Like, have you ever just been randomly friend requested by people and ignored them? Yeah, sometimes there is a real person attached to that Facebook profile, and sometimes the person who  seems like a weirdo is just a Jamaican with the same name as you looking for a friend. Or a catfish, but maybe just a friendly Jamaican. Take, for ANOTHER example, Romy. He’s engaged to an American now, and he met his new wife on Facebook. MET HIS WIFE ON FACEBOOK. Crazy.

Another interesting thing  I noticed on this trip was how they’ve kind of skipped over the process of using wifi. Some people have data on their phones, but wifi is virtually (pun intended) non-existent (and definitely non-existent in Elim).


My farmer friend, Louie.


So for the next two days, I walked around Elim, and I kid you not — I felt like a celebrity there. Everyone was so excited to see me, and they were like celebrities to me, because I was equally as excited to see them. I would be walking and then all of a sudden hear “Aunty Sam!! Aunty Sam!!” It’s humbling and flattering to know that there’s a small town in the middle of Jamaica that I love and that loves me right back.



While I was there, I was really excited to see a new cookshop that had opened!  Look how pretty it is! (pictured above). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to eat there because it’s only open sometimes on Fridays. Oh yeah, that’s right…this is why I was so grateful when  momma cooked so many amazing meals for me; it’s hard to find a shop that’s open in Elim!



Repping the Gully side. The other side is the Gaza side, which has amazing music, I can agree…..buuuut it’s a little more aggressive, and their leader is in jail for murder. So, “mi de pon di gully side”.



Sofies grandchild.


While staying in Elim, momma’s family was more than happy to let me stay with them. It was so generous, and really helped me out a lot; however, it was also stiflingly hot with no fan — just stagnant air and mosquitos. Needless to say, it wasn’t restful. That being said, I really did appreciated sleeping in her old bed, and it was really nice how much they cleaned up for me.


The room–surprised you can’t see the sweat outline of my body on the sheets.


The morning, though, was fantastic. I sat outside taking in the view I’ve seen so many times in momma’s yard. In the 80 degree heat, I had already started sweating profusely by 7am, BUT I had forgotten all about the heat once people just started coming by to give us fruit. St. Elizabeth (Elim’s parish) is known for the best, sweetest mangoes, the honey bananas, coconuts, and otaheite apples, which are supppperrr red (giving Red Delicious a run for their money in color, but it’s no contest in taste: Jamaica all the way). And they also taste like roses.

80% of being Jamaican is just sitting around being hot.


View from Momma’s house.

So again, walkin’ around and bein’ hot (like, temperature wise), I tried really hard to see more familiar faces. I didn’t have long enough to spend in Jamaica, and I wanted to visit with everyone, skin sum teeth (translation: smile), and check to make sure they were alright.

If you remember from my previous Jamaica blog, people who I had loved years ago (and still love) had  kept pictures I gave to them before I left Jamaica. And what do you know? I run into an old taxi driver, Levin, who I also gave a picture to. And when I saw him that day, he showed me, still in his taxi, the picture. The photo of us is kept in pristine condition in his glove compartment. It was almost unbearably sweet, I couldn’t believe it. Of course, we had to recreate it.


Levin now holding a picture of Levin and me 5 years ago.



Recreation of a 5-year-old photograph; we switched turns wearing hats.


I did get sunburned even though I applied sunscreen twice a day! Twice a day! I’m sorry dad. Next time I’ll bring another t-shirt.


Scenes from a shop in Elim.


In this photo he’s asking me what I think about Trump.



That cookshop, which wasn’t open on this day either.




The Basic School

Towards the end of my trip, I visited the school that I had helped build. That felt rewarding! At the time we built it, it was the first new building constructed in Elim in over 27 years.


When you take a photo with a few kids….



You’re gonna have to take a picture with all the kids…


I was finding myself needing Patrick’s teaching skills.



The kids and their one teacher (who is also a Samantha!). There are supposed to be three teachers…


Here. Have some adorable smiles to brighten your day.

Next time I go to Jamaica, I’ll try to remember to bring even more school supplies for those precious pickni.

With that being my last stop in Elim, and with a lighter backpack, I headed to Bluefields Bay, which was where Patrick lived with Bumpy, his host mom. I went and saw her in Black River on the way.


Breathtaking bluefields…fields of water…that are blue.



Blue fields meet yellow fields.


While I was in Bluefields, it struck me just how different our placements had been, and to be honest, I couldn’t believe that I had lived in Elim for two years. The differences in our sites was jarring. And, as much as I loved it, I was only in Jamaica for a week this time, and it was hard. I was counting down the hours, the minutes, the seconds, and the drops of sweat. A week was not enough to lose  the excitement of being in Jamaica but, conversely, it was exactly the right amount of time to remember how tough and difficult my life was down there.

Even though I will always go back to visit Jamaica, you’ll remember that I said that my favorite thing is how satisfying it is  to touch back into the United States after such an intense trip. I stand by saying that Jamaica is the hardest country I’ve ever been to. The reverse culture shock is real, even for such a short time. You better believe I stared at all the white people and soaked up all of the air conditioning at the lounge in the Montego Bay Airport (thank you Priority Pass). I even put on a long sleeved shirt just to prove to myself that I was finally somewhat, relatively, sort of, almost not too hot.

Until next time, Jamaica. Big up yourself, and bless up!

One love,
Aunty Sam



2 Responses to “Look Lively, Jamaica”

  1. Paul Garcia July 26, 2018 at 1:44 am #

    I once travelled to the Virgin Islands, but never made it to Jamaica… now it’s on my bucket list… ya maun!! ; )

  2. Jerry Pitts July 27, 2018 at 7:09 pm #

    OMG, such a good blog! Brings back so many memories for us. I can’t remember a time I was not dripping with sweat in Jamaica. Definitely a great trip for you Sammi. Thanks for sharing it. Kathy and Jerry(-;]

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