When I ask myself and others ‘what is the single greatest thing that would most change your life as a volunteer in Jamaica’, I usually get the same response. It’s not hot water or cable TV or high-speed internet at home (although that would make a difference too). In close second might be a laundry machine- for those who don’t have it. But more often than not, the answer is: a car.
People at home might not be aware of Peace Corps’ policies about volunteers and driving. Volunteers are not allowed to have a car, much less drive one (except in very rare, pre-approved cases) nor can we ride motorcycles. These kinds of policies are definitely a sore point for some volunteers. But like it or not, it’s what we signed up for, so we might as well embrace it. If you think about it, if you were a governmental organization in charge of the safety and healthcare of thousands of volunteers around the world (volunteers who know how to start a law suit, no less), you’d probably have some solid vehicle policies in place as well.
What that means for volunteers in Jamaica is that we take “public,” the informal, unscheduled system of buses, mini-vans, and taxi cars that can get you just about anywhere on the island. It means we may be waiting at the side of the road for quite some time, if we hit that magical hour when the taxis are few and far between and those that do come are already over-loaded. Or we could be waiting several hours inside a hot van in the bus park as passengers trickle in every twenty minutes until every conceivable seat is taken for the route to Kingston. It means that when we go to the market, we are limited to the amount we can carry with our own hands onto a bus. If it’s getting dark, we don’t want to get into a taxi we’re not familiar with, so evening travel has to be pre-arranged or, more often, avoided. Usually if we go to an event in the evening, there’s someone we know who can give us a ride, however, that person is usually in charge of the event and is the very last person to leave.
Public transportation is a lesson in flexibility, patience, and letting go of control. It’s other greatest blessing comes in the form of integration. The fact that we don’t have a car is one of the biggest reasons why we know, or at least recognize, so many people in our community. We either walk to work, in which case we’re in the habit of greeting everyone on the road, or we take public and get to know all the taxi drivers and bus ‘ductas (conductors) as well as some of the passengers. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and told me that they see me walking to school in the mornings, how many people I don’t recognize greet me with “Morning, Teach.” If we left our apartment and got straight into a car and drove to work every morning, our faces would not be out there and our neighbors wouldn’t realize we were a part of their community. This is how it goes at home in the U.S. We live in silos. Here in Jamaica, what we have given up- a really big chunk of our daily freedom and independence, is gained in community and interconnectedness. It’s not an easy trade-off. Perhaps upon returning home, we can find a better way to have both.