A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Tale: Part II

Sometimes it seems hard now to look back and try to understand it all, but then that day on the north coast when I wandered into the middle of that drug deal gone bad wasn’t the only time I nearly died a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica. There were several others and the reasons weren’t that I was a just a little too fearless. Any place that can take your as life easily as Jamaica is also a place you will want to really live in, a place that makes you feel alive and care about what you’re doing.

A lot of Jamaicans have that same sort of spirit, even if they don’t know it.

Still, ever since that day I’ve been very serious about the drug issue and wondered what it was that made so many people take the risk of raising, selling and smuggling ganja, or cannabis, as it is more properly known. The word ‘marijuana,’ of course is a Mexican term, no doubt the idiom the U.S. seems to prefer, though more common at that time, in particular among users my age, was the word “pot.” The ‘ganja’ problem was something the Peace Corps seemed to prefer ignoring and that didn’t make it any easier to understand. To every volunteer it had put out the proper, responsible warning of course, but the reality was that what ever you called it, it was out there and as much a part of Jamaican culture as anything else.

Maybe the agency’s bureaucrats didn’t actually know the ins and outs of the thing. Maybe they did and realized they just couldn’t do much about it and thought it best to simply ignore it. In any case, the details of what was really happening with it across the island was something they just weren’t going to discuss. You had to find out for yourself and hope you survived your lessons.

Today, it’s like a lot of other problems in Jamaica, somebody should have done something serious about a long time ago. If they had, maybe today we wouldn’t all be in such bad shape about it. Like a lot of other things, the stupidity of our inaction on the issue has resulted in the fact that we have the same problems, if not worse ones, than we had then. It is still illegal and at the center of a dangerous trade and today – it’s being produced in forms that are far more potent and dangerous and has become linked through criminal elements from South America with the trade of cocaine.

As a volunteer, short of having nothing to do with it at all – something only a few volunteers seemed to be able to do successfully at that time – many young, Peace Corps people I knew at least had some familiarity with it and some were even regular users. Just saying ‘no,’ as the saying goes today, or so many no doubt thought at the time, would definitely have separated you from what seemed to me to be at least half the society.

In the end, I realized that aside from its illegality, no one I knew there ever had any real problem with it, not Jamaican, nor foreigner, other than the occasionally foolish tourist who might do something exceptionally stupid when under the influence or in some cases get themselves into a jam where the locals could exploit its illegality by taking their money and letting them go after they were caught with it.

As for myself, personally, I knew I had to form some workable understanding of it and its use, regardless of whether I used it myself or not, just to get by.

Remember, these were the days of the new, drug culture. There were real hippies in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, and beatniks in New York’s Greenwich Village. No one would doubt that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of college students for example were experimenting with all manner of psychedelic drugs and most, naturally, didn’t have the slightest idea what they were doing.

To not understand and not be able to deal with the cannabis phenomenon on the island, to my way of thinking, simply wasn’t a realistic approach – no more realistic than the way the Peace Corps seemed to be dealing with its overall plan and operation year after year. I mean really, if you had the highest attrition rate in the hemisphere, you had to be doing something wrong and that meant you couldn’t be doing all that much for the average Jamaican. My story, as I would discover, was at least an exception to the rule.

I remember a few weeks after training I found myself living alone at the edge of a small town inland off the north coast in Trelawny. I’d found an empty house, long under construction, whose owner was only a few years from retirement and who needed some help to get it ready to be lived in.

It was a nice, comfortable little place on the side of a hill looking down on the inland road into Duncans, but it needed an access drive, a catchment tank for running water, and to be connected to the power grid for electricity. Living there alone at first was a little primitive, but I got by. Such an arrangement itself wasn’t something recommended by the Peace Corps, but it didn’t bother me and I took it as a challenge.

The agency had strongly suggested that young people in particular, which made up the largest part of the volunteer group, should always live with a host family. They had gone to some lengths to see that such families were available and reasonably cared for with a small stipend. Living within a family group was less expensive, and it kept volunteers from living together, which was something else the agency seemed to want to discourage – I could never understand why.

In any case, living with a host family brought a set of responsibilities to many Jamaican families that they had no training to deal with and added a challenge that most American young people had no experience with as well. I thought the policy created as many problems as it solved. Indeed if it was really a help, then fewer volunteers would have been dropping out before their service period had ended.

For me, personally, I found living with a family was fine and had already spent several weeks with four different families during my training period, but in each case, I always felt that I was something of an imposition.

As a recent college graduate, I’d just spent four years living alone in a college dormitory in a strange town and away from my own family, so the idea of becoming a temporary son in someone else’s family didn’t seem all that interesting. Moreover, it didn’t seem to go along well with the idea of being grown up and out on your own.

In Jamaica, the ridiculously small salary I was given, something less than US$200 a month, was even at that time nearly four times the per capita income. In any case, I was a poor man there, of course, but that didn’t seem a big deal when almost everyone else around you was even poorer.

I remember thinking I would certainly learn more about the people I’d been sent to help if I had to live with the same day to day problems that they did. Most of those were just meeting the basic necessities of life. I’d been right, of course, but then, like most other Jamaicans I had a lot of caring people around me to help.

In fact, soon after I’d moved into the empty house, I’d met a local farmer who had sort of taken me under his wing and shown me many things about growing and cooking the local food. After several months and a lot of chats, I would come to realize that I’d learned more from him about life in Jamaica than in most all of my training.

Considering he was totally illiterate, little more than a poor farmer, that was no small accomplishment, and though I remember we talked about all sorts of things, it had taken some time for him to get around to telling me that he grew the ‘herb,’ that’s what he called it, and to explaining that he did so as a way of helping out his family.

You realize this man wasn’t rich, in fact he was one of the poorest people I’d ever known, but he did have ten children and unlike a serious percentage of Jamaican men, he actually dedicated his entire life to trying to support them.

The one thing he had going for him was that, though formally uneducated, he was a naturally brilliant person. The locals thought of him as something of a ‘madman,’ though he was one of the most sane and interesting people I’ve ever known.

Aside from growing much of his own family’s food, which he did very well, his labor also provided sustenance for several other families in the area. One afternoon, in one of the many chats we had together about life and living in Jamaica, he told me without fear or hesitation that he’d grown a little herb to make money that he would give his children, usually to help with some unforeseen expense.

When I found out how little he made, and compared that to what sort of profit I knew that the smugglers and the financiers and the dealers back in the States made, for example, I was shocked. For the man who did all the real work, it was almost nothing.

As for the possibility of his going to prison for it, that was real as well. In fact, he also confessed he’d spent a few years there already. It seems it was a pay or play system. If you had the money, you got off, and he hadn’t, so he didn’t. Even more surprising was his comment that before he was finally released, he’d told me, he’d grown some very fine herb for one of the prison wardens. Imagine that.

As for the Peace Corps, as I mentioned, there really didn’t seem to be much real concern about ganja. In fact, their only worry associated with it was that you should stay as uninvolved with politics as you possibly could, because, I was told quietly, the Jamaican constabulary would use it to get rid of politically meddlesome volunteers.

In other words, if you got involved in some political situation that you shouldn’t have and angered some politician, a team of policemen could show up with a few crocus sacks of weed, arrest you for it, and “whoosh,” the next day you’d be on a plane back home.

The record of your ever having been there would also disappear.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’d known not quite a few volunteers who’d made no political connections at all and one of them even had a footlocker full of it under his bed. I’d asked him if he used that much, and he said no, but then they’d just kept giving it to him, he’d guessed, to make sure he didn’t run out.

And then there was the story of the obviously unstable young man in Spanish Town who’d apparently smoked something too strong and ended up running around naked talking to himself in the middle of the night. He had been shipped off quietly as well.

Still, I’d been lucky, I suppose, for knowing the language that morning near the airfield may have saved my life. Naturally it was one of many stories I never told the Peace Corps officials. In any case, those same officials were always busy, it seemed, having some conference or another.

Except for having an office in Kingston that you could visit if you liked, you were on your own. But then that was what you expected. Somehow you knew there weren’t going to be any counselors or psychologists there to help anyone out in a crisis. I remember there had been, in my work I’d naturally met them, but then after the training period was over they’d disappeared back to the States.

As for the volunteers, though the island was really a small place compared to what most of them were used to, the reality was that getting anywhere, given the various manners and costs of public transportation, especially on any sort of time schedule, was always a problem. I remember one particular challenge I’d had early on during training that illustrates the point.

There was this cute Peace Corps girl that I’d been trying to get to know better who was staying with a company manager and his wife on one of the Appleton Estate properties near Williamsfield in the parish of Manchester. It was quite a drive by car from Kingston.

On a Friday afternoon, at a volunteer’s meeting, we had agreed that I’d come out to visit her that weekend and stay over Saturday night, and so early that Saturday morning, I’d caught a lift from Elletson Flats, near Papine, on the east side of Kingston into town and then walked a dozen blocks or so to the train station to catch a train out to Manchester.

When I got to the station, the train had just left and was still slowly rolling eastward away from the platform, when I was encouraged by the ticket agent to “catch it” if I wanted. That left me to run after it and jump onto the last car. There were many who cheered me on.

Unfortunately it was not the express to Montego Bay, but a slow freight. I soon discovered that it stopped at every village on the route. Once aboard I found a conductor, bought a ticket to Williamsfield and sat in the first set of seats I could find to watch the flat, mid-summer countryside west of Kingston crawl slowly by.

Outside, life in rural Jamaica presented itself to me within a magnificent, timeless panorama.

There were little old men riding donkey carts piled high with cane and some others selling ices on street corners. There were brightly-colored pastel painted concrete-block houses, wattle and daub walled shacks with zinc sheet roofs, little clusters of stores side by side with odd, sometimes pretentious-sounding names on large signs, and always music booming.

There were broad-shouldered, heavy set women with cloth rings and parcels on their heads, always walking, walking, with barefoot children not listening, nearby, in grey, brown, and green colored shirts and shorts, always kicking a ball or rolling a hoop with a stick down some dusty, side street.

There were wrought iron gratings and fences and goats, and catchment tanks, and old cars rusting in side yards. There was the precious shade of all manner of trees – coconut palms and bamboo, and in addition Royal Poinsettia, Spanish bayonet, Cassia, Poor-mans’ Orchid, Tabebuia and more I couldn’t begin to name, all making a cool shade that held a thousand faces, bright white eyes peering out from underneath.

Sometimes there were empty kilometers of tall cane fields, tops waving in the breeze, unbroken by all but wagon roads or the grinding of a diesel tractor pulling some apparatus.

Sometimes, tall, naked men stood proudly at a fields’ edge washing near a water tank. There were cows tied to posts, goats and chickens wandering about, some in pens and some in well-kept pastures.

Always where there were people, there were children, children everywhere with black hair and short pigtails and ribbons and braids, dark faces against khaki, some in school uniforms even on Saturday, walking along, always talking, always carrying something, sometimes dancing to unheard music, staring now and again at the old train as it crept by, whistle blowing and now and again stopping to let on and off passengers and sweetie vendors, gum and nut sellers. Few noticed the young white man.

“Wrigley!”

“No thank you,” I said.

Eventually the train slowly crept upward into the hills mountains and the clutter turned to broad vistas through small gorges and hills, green and grey blue under the noon day sun. The hours clacked by like the wheels on the track and then finally I found myself at the Williamsfield station and getting off and walking down the main street through the town.

Which way was it to the Appleton Estate? Arms would raise and fingers would point and off I went, walking uphill, walking and watching for a car passing from which I might catch a lift.

The first thing that slowed to pick me up was a huge cane truck. The wheels were taller than I was, and a voice up in the air somewhere was asking me where I was going and me climbing up to get in the cab beside the driver.

The old truck edged around the narrow bends and along through the hills upward again, always upward, grinding gears, shifting hard, breaking, then roaring along noisily until we finally came out on a broad plateau.

“See it deer, yeh mon, dat’s the manager home,” said the driver and he stopped and let me out at a small gate where the paved road passed a dirt one that led in the distance to a modest-sized house standing alone in the clearing beyond with no trees around it, in the middle of a huge field of cane. It was the same picture you would find on a rum bottle.

When I got to the steps, I found the Peace Corps girl, looking cute as ever, coming down them towards me, smiling.

“Well, I thought it was you,” she said and gave me a big hug, me with a look of total disbelief on my face.

All I could think of was how she had no idea at all what I’d gone through to get there. It was late afternoon and I was totally exhausted.

She was so glad I could come and they’d been expecting me for dinner, she’d said, and after a cool drink, I’d forgotten the ordeal and sat down to one of the best meals I’d ever eaten there on the island.

     

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