Life After Peace Corps: Returning to Post As RPCVs

Sunrise from a friend's apartment in Kingston
Sunrise from a friend’s apartment in Kingston

What is it like to go back to Jamaica after Peace Corps? Many have asked us this, and we are still trying to figure it out ourselves.

Let me start by saying that going between Jamaica and the U.S. feels like two separate worlds. Continue reading “Life After Peace Corps: Returning to Post As RPCVs”

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You May Never Know: Touching Lives in Unexpected Ways

The following story/letter originally appeared on the blog From Africa to the Caribbean. It was written by Kate W, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica who worked in the schools, like me. It is such a touching example of the unexpected impact a PCV has, so I had to share!
-M

You May Never Know

Sweet Rianna,

       Your quiet disposition, small frame, and hugely curious eyes caught my attention first. You would walk timidly through the door into my corner of a classroom, almost holding your finger to your lips as if whispering sshhhhhh while your brown eyes searched for unspoken permission to enter. You came with the curious masses in the beginning, stepping aside as the bigger, more outgoing students won the prize of participating in Miss Wright’s puzzles, books, coloring, or games. When another student came in, you scooted over on your already small chair, making room for another person to sit and participate in whatever was going on at the small table for that moment.

       Then my novelty wore off. The masses stopped coming, learning quickly that I am a firm and strict (albeit equally kind and silly) teacher. Some were offended that I would not grant them permission for certain activities on certain days. Others bored easily of the same books over and over or lost interest when the bracelet thread ran out. But you stayed. You continued to walk quietly and respectfully into that corner, touching things gently and practically whispering permission, taking care of and respecting that which was not yours. Your toma, Rhianna McCarty, and you enjoyed solving the cardboard puzzles together, personalities begging for praise at a collaborative job well done. Your tiny hands eagerly reached for the fallen Uno or Old Maid card without hesitation, even if you were not the culprit who dropped it. You never left my sacredly organized space without making sure things were back in order and put neatly away. The way you treated your friends, peers, and surroundings caught my attention next, proving the age-old mantra that actions speak louder than words.  

       I did not work directly with you, pulling you out of class to improve your reading skills or because your teacher simply needed a break from behavior. You are a smart girl, as the Jamaicans say. You came to me on your own merit and on your own time, leaving play time outside to the birds. I cannot recall a single time that you complained or shrugged your shoulders when I said no to a certain activity, unlike many other students, perfectly content to simply be and enjoy. Your naturally agreeable, trusting nature had a calming effect in the midst of an unpredictably noisy and chaotic environment. 

       And then you stole my heart. You, Miss Rianna, made every suffering through Jamaica and Peace Corps worth enduring through. You may never know, but you certainly let me know. Tears brim my eyes as I write and remember this, a story that I shared with one or two Jamaicans while still on island, and a story that has become the answer to What was Peace Corps/Jamaica like?.

       I was weeks away from departing Jamaica as the local Peace Corps Volunteer. Apathy had set in as I worked to complete paperwork, wrap up projects, and prepare my house and classroom for the volunteer following me. My head was full of and focused on the boy and potential relationship I had recently started investing in. A teacher’s yelling broke me out of a said trance one morning before school started, and I eventually rose from my table to see what the commotion was about. There you stood, quiet and wide-eyed as the teacher scolded and kissed her teeth at the boy who tore your uniform clear across the back. Having taken on more than my assigned role of Literacy Intervention Specialist (what PCV ever doesn’t?), I offered to sew your uniform back together.

      I placed my tin of sprinkle (sparkle) crayons and haphazardly torn pieces of scrap paper on the table in front of you as you sat in your blouse and shorts. After a few quiet moments I looked across the table at you, creatively coloring away.

“You know you’re a pretty girl, Rianna?” I inquired, attempting to redeem the moment for what I grew to care about most in the students’ lives: character.

“Yes,”

you replied, barely glancing up from your paper that now contained 2nd-grade sketches of two girls and the words I love you on it.

After another set of quiet moments  I asked, 

 
“What makes a girl pretty, Rianna?”


And without a second of hesitation, you replied,

 
her soul.”


I was speechless. Thoughts ran through my head faster than I could process them to exit my mouth. 
               

She is thinking critically! 
Who are her parents? 
I want to go meet them and praise them and learn what they are doing differently and right. 
What a wise, wise girl at such a young age. 
She is more beautiful than I ever imagined.


Eventually, I managed to mutter out,

 
“That’s exactly right! Who taught you that, Rianna?”


And, again, without skipping a beat, you looked up through your long lashes and said with the most confidence I ever witnessed in your being:

You did.

Culture 101 for Returning Peace Corps Jamaica Volunteers

jamaica bus stop

This is a (mostly) fictional guide for Peace Corps Volunteers who are readjusting to the States after serving in Jamaica. It’s meant to be a light-hearted look at the cultural differences between Jamaica and the U.S., through the imaginary trials of a PCV who has adopted host country norms and forgotten how to be American. We got nearly three months of cultural training about Jamaica before service- what would we have learned if the roles were reversed? Although some of these things would probably never happen, others are legitimate concerns. Enjoy and, please, add your own in the comments below! Continue reading “Culture 101 for Returning Peace Corps Jamaica Volunteers”

Top Tips for Teaching Literacy (and working in Jamaican schools)

tutoring ja pcv
For the past two years, I’ve learned a whole heap serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural, Jamaican primary school. My official position title was: Youth Literacy Advisor. On a daily basis, I was pulling out small groups of students from their regular classes and helping them with basic reading skills.

I was not a teacher before, nor do I plan to become one. But teaching kids to read sure has been rewarding. If I can save those who endeavor down the same path, from avoiding some of the bumps I hit in the road, then my lessons learned will be all the more worthwhile. Continue reading “Top Tips for Teaching Literacy (and working in Jamaican schools)”

Two Years in Peace Corps Jamaica: A Video

What do you say when people ask you, “how was it?”

Today we say goodbye to what has been our home and lives for the past two years. It’s been a roller coaster ride, almost 4 total years of our life if you include the process we went through just to get accepted and placed to serve as volunteers (which was typical at the time, not so typical now). The last couple of months, weeks, and days we’ve had the chance to reflect with other fellow volunteers, get in a few new adventures, and more importantly, say thanks to the people of Jamaica who have taught and given us so much.

It’s incredible to think of all of the challenges, the fun, the adventure, the work- everything that makes up the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. There’s just no way to really answer question, “how was it?”.  I guess we could say, “It was everything we’d hope it would be and more,” and that still feels like we are cheapening the experience.

Two Years Video

It’s impossible to summarize two years, but these short video clips will hopefully give you a taste of our experience in Jamaica as Peace Corps Volunteers. We’re so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to come and live in a Jamaican community, to share life with people, to be challenged and to grow. It was not always easy, but we have gained so incredibly much in return.

Farewell Photos

And these are photos from the three farewell parties we attended (two of which were at the community center this past weekend):

-J + M

What to Expect from a Returning Volunteer

footprints in sand

Quick life update: We just got back from two days in Kingston doing our final check out process with Peace Corps. We have only 4 days left in country! Wowza. Our upcoming travel itinerary is posted on our new travel blog if you’re interested.

We haven’t even left Jamaica yet, so how can I tell you what to expect from a returning volunteer? I guess I’ve experienced “re-entry” a few times before, albeit from shorter stints abroad. And I’m also basing this on some of the things we’ve been told through our Close of Service process and past volunteers.

First, I’ll share with you the abstract side, in poetry, then the practical, in bullet points. (I’m not really a poet but was compelled to compose my thoughts into a poem because it didn’t sound right any other way.)

Going Home: A Poem

A new place is a new world.
A blank canvas.
Before you experience it for yourself,
its image in your mind
is mostly empty.

The first time I went to a Caribbean island,
it was little more than a black hole
of wonder.
I tried to see into it,
but there was nothing there yet.
Coming to Jamaica,
I pictured the movie Cool Runnings
and the familiar colors of Caribbean islands.
But still, it was two-dimensional snapshots.
A pile of postcards.
Pictures without personal meaning or context.

Immediately upon arrival in that new place,
when you see it for yourself,
the blank canvas
starts to form a few nebulous sketches.
The longer you stay
and the more you experience,
the black hole transforms
into a world of colorful details.
Just as you can walk through your own bedroom
with your eyes closed,
you can picture so many now-familiar corners of your new world
without actually being present to them.
Now they are full of history,
meaning,
memories,
and nuances
that color them deeper.

A “new world.”
Although sharing the same planet
and the same humanity,
it does feel like you’ve been transported
to an altogether different place.
Going between the two
is so unreal
you almost have to forget the one you just left
in order to function.

Going home.
Your mouth is incapable of translating
the world you hold in your mind.
You try speaking in text
to people who see only in postcards.
It becomes like a distant memory
or a story you once heard second-hand.
But if you take the time to remember,
to step out of the home that immerses you as if you’d never left,
it’s not a black hole
or a pile of postcards
that you recall.
It’s a whole world
and many stories.
This world of nostalgia
may haunt you
in the most unexpected moments-
the colors,
the faces,
the familiar nooks and crannies,
… the simpler life.

Practical Ways You Can Help a Returnee

  • Don’t expect everything to be exactly the same
    Returning home “should” feel comfortable for RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers). But in reality, it might not. Because we may not even realize how much we’ve changed on the inside, Returned Volunteers may feel conflicted or confused even when things are familiar. We will be seeing our former life from a different vantage point, good and/or bad.
  • Support us by showing interest
    Whether you see it or not, we’ll be processing the experiences we’ve had in Peace Corps for a long time coming. It’s a huge part of our lives that we don’t want to forget or minimize. If you do want to hear about our experiences, it can help to carve out a time and space to really talk. But we don’t have to sit down and hash it all out at once. Ask genuine questions that you’re curious about, as you think of them. Or, just hang around and our stories will come out naturally in conversations. However it happens, we’ll definitely appreciate your interest.
  • Please try to ask specific questions
    It’s basically impossible to answer the question, “How was it?” As my friend Brandi put it so well, this is as good as you’re going to get: “There were some really awesome parts, but honestly, there were some really awful parts. Most days were something in between.” Could you sum up the last two years of your life on the spot? Again, if there’s something in particular that you’re truly curious about, ask. (What kind of resources do the teachers have access to in Jamaica? What are the most common meals people eat? What was your apartment like?) If you don’t know where to start, ask to see a few of our videos- they’re a short and sweet way to share an overview of our experiences with you.
  • Include us
    Yes, we’ve lived apart from each other for two years, so we’re no longer in the habit of hanging out. And true, we may not be around on a regular or permanent basis even after we return. But we could sure use some friends to make home feel like home again! We’re leaving a highly relational culture and re-entering into a very independent one. Let’s reconnect!

Fellow RPCVs, what was your experience re-entering the U.S.? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jamaica: What Will We Miss The Most?

We’ve been reflecting over the past couple weeks on what we will miss the most when we leave Jamaica. We also, consequently, have an ongoing list of the things we will not miss. Here goes:

Things We Will Miss

This is the market lady we saw nearly every Saturday for the past two years. She took good care of us.
This is the market lady we saw nearly every Saturday for the past two years. She took good care of us.

The People Of course! How could we ever forget the people we’ve grown to know and love here. They are one of a kind. The kids are especially dear to our hearts. Continue reading “Jamaica: What Will We Miss The Most?”

Going Out Dancing

Screen shot 2014-04-16 at 10.07.23 PM
Henroy teaches me how fi dance.

It’s hard to believe but today is my last day at the community center and so I figured I would leave doing something great – they got me to dance like a Jamaican….sort of.

At the community center, I became friends with a some amazing young entrepreneurs called “Super Legend Entertainment” (a very Jamaican name) who started their own entertainment company that preforms in our town as well as at hotels in the touristy area known as Negril. I am a huge fan of theirs, partly because I wish I could dance as good as them, but also because they have assisted me with all of our summer youth camps by providing free dance lessons.

After a year of so of talking about making a video together and doing lessons regularly at the community center, both finally came together this past week, even though it was my last one. Oh well. Such is life in Jamaica and a great way to go out. You never know when things will happen, but they do. It is what it is and more importantly, it was a great way to finish my service here at the center. It’s one of many fun memories among the many challenges, joys, laughter, tears, and some times utter ridiculousness that was my Peace Corps volunteer service (more to come for another post). I’m incredibly thankful.

Hope you enjoy the videos. -J

Jamaican Zumba Routine – “Same Way” by Busy Signal (Blurred Lines remix)

Henroy from Super Legend Entertainment breaks down the moves of the routine 

Speaking of videos, here’s another update from our new travel blog Intentional Travelers: The Best Videos by Peace Corps Volunteers Around the World.

Best-Peace-Corps-Videos

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