In my fifth month in Jamaica, I was confronted with the contrast between being ‘new’ and being ‘experienced’.
A combination of things heralded this confrontation. First, the YMCA welcomed a small group of students from SUNY New Paltz’ study abroad program. The students and their teacher are in Kingston for a month visiting important sites, studying the culture, history and way of life of Jamaicans, and learning first hand through volunteerism and practical experiences. The students arrived well prepared for their experience, with both an academic understanding of the world they are visiting and a strong sense of curiosity to guide them on their adventure. It has been a pleasure talking to them about what they are observing and learning during their time here.
Second, a fresh batch of Cuso volunteers arrived to start their placements. Before they arrived, I had emailed and Skyped with a few of them, answering questions and sharing my experience where it was relevant. Meeting them face to face was like running into old friends. One of the new volunteers, Mariba, lives in the same apartment complex as me and will also be working at the YMCA; I feel excited for her company.
Third, I had the joy of David’s visit. Our trip to Portland was such a wonderful escape from the dusty, hectic every day life of Kingston! There was more jerk chicken and pork than we could finish in one meal, blissful Caribbean sea views you only get on vacation, indulgent luxuries, and interesting interactions other visitors. These small adventures were balanced with an abundance of treats and some precious time spent catching up. I was spoiled! There is nothing like a healthy dose of the comforts of home to fill your heart.
Welcoming all these newcomers has made my own arrival feel fresh and full in my mind. The details are vivid, rich and unmuted by time. How nervous and excited and confused I felt all at once. What I needed in order to feel settled, welcome, safe. What I expected, what surprised me, what I am still not ok with. I have experienced so many new things in the last 5 months that talking about it all slips easily from the tongue. I can go on for hours about my time in Jamaica so far – every detail is fascinating to me.
This shortness of time has also left me feeling reticent. I feel awkward talking about this country or its people as though I have some kind of great wisdom or insight. It is one thing for me to talk about how I managed my cockroach problem, or how I handled culture shock, or even what local coffee shop has the best iced coffee, but it is another thing entirely to speak with authority about someone else’s history, culture, workplace, lifestyle. Experience should come from years of familiarity, not from such a small taste as I have had.
In all things, I aim to be a generalist and a learner; the quest to specialize or become an expert is not one that I particularly enjoy or admire. I’ve found that the more I concentrate on learning everything about one thing, the less capacity I have to keep my heart and mind open to everything else. With all that is going on in our world lately, and with all that Jamaica has to offer a curious soul, I feel like it is my duty and responsibility to approach this journey as a learner. I may no longer be the newest kid on the block, but I still have plenty to learn and plenty of experience to gain.