* Michelle Thoughts, * Peace Corps

Topics in PCJ #5: Transportation

See past topics: Attrition, Culture and Effectiveness, Goals, Patriotism

jamaica busWhen 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.

7 thoughts on “Topics in PCJ #5: Transportation”

  1. We share your experience exactly! Riding a bus/taking a taxi was our most dangerous Peace Corps experience. Overloaded vehicles (13 in a car meant for 5!), bald tires, bad shocks, excessive speeds, poor roads, and questionable judgment — scary! Upon getting in a car, I would try and cajole the driver with a little humor, “Yu no drive crazy crazy, right? Yu tek time?” Only occasionally this worked. Be safe!

  2. You certainly are more connected to your community taking public transportation in Jamaica. We are so spoiled here in the US.

  3. You are so correct that in the US we live in silos and don’t know our neighbors and community. Even after being back home from Jamaica for almost 10 years I still feel like that sense of community from just being out there, taking public transportation/walking, was essential in getting to know those in my community. That is one of the aspects that I miss in my day to day life in the US. Plus, some of my best stories of my service come from riding buses and taxis in JA. To be honest sometimes I really miss it! Good luck in your service, savor every moment, the good and the bad!

  4. I completely agree that relying on public transport has been a lesson in flexibility, patience, and letting go of that which I cannot control AND that it helps with integration. But, I look at the issue with a different perspective.

    Having lived in rural America where most households have their own cars and community involvement was very high (though I literally had been inside the silo on my farm on many occasions) AND having lived in cities like DC where hundreds of thousands take public every day yet live in silos (and don’t look up from their Blackberry phones until they hear their stop announced on the metro P.A. system), I’m not as quick to blame personal transportation. Questions of ecological implications aside, people having their own mode of transportation should give them more time for doing things in/for their community. I think it has a lot to do with work schedules/ethic, culture, personal choice, and how communities and cities are structured in the U.S. versus the developing world.

    My hope is that the lessons I have learned walking and taking public in my Jamaican community will help me to make choices in my American community to better integrate and help others integrate, despite auto ownership.

  5. Came across this article today, Commuting’s Hidden Costs. Talks about how urban sprawl and long commutes contribute to dependence on cars. Historically, people have been electing to live in suburbia and drive 30+ miles to work, one-way. So, instead of the car saving them time they actually spend more time on the road than their urban counterparts. Fortunately, it sounds like our generation is bucking the trend and urban planners are making communities more pedestrian friendly. Let’s hope so, because apparently there is an inverse relationship between commute distance and life expectancy. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/28/commutings-hidden-cost/?_r=1

    That being said, I get the feeling public transportation is not a panacea for closely integrated communities (though good for the environment). It appears short commutes, regardless of transportation mode, provides more opportunity for meaningful interaction. Great that urban planners are fixing cities for walkers…now if we could only get that air quality thing going in the right direction.

    What do you think?

    1. Kevin, you make a good point in your first comment that personal transportation is not solely to blame for first-world isolation. It depends on the context and the set up of the community, among other things. With the exception of certain communities, I still see the car culture/system as a major contributor to isolating people from each other.
      To tag along to your second comment (thanks for sharing the article btw), I recently read a great book called Simple Prosperity, which estimates that each additional ten minutes in commute time decreases civic involvement by 10 percent. People use personal transportation because they live far enough away from work that public transit and walking are not even an option. This equals more commute time and less social interaction. The length of the commute does make a big difference.

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