I had been careful to have absolutely no expectations before I boarded my nine hour flight to the other side of the world. It was as far away from home as I had ever been and I wasn’t paying a penny – awesome. I also had to be a responsible adult in charge of four teenage girls. I think describing myself as out of my depth would have been an understatement. I was downright terrified. Warned not to take anything valuable with me in case it was ‘ripped off me’, I had even left my engagement ring at home and had packed a first aid kit to cover all eventualities. What lay ahead were two weeks where I experienced so many things that I am going to struggle to fit them into two blog posts.
When we popped out into the Caribbean heat my first thought was ‘wow, where’s the water?’ Driving through Kingston to our hostel really gave us a feel for the city. The two main imaginatively named areas, downtown and uptown, were polar opposites. Downtown is the poorer area, packed with houses whose inhabitants stood outside on the street chatting and cooking food but also where the shops were all protected by an iron grille with a small serving hatch.
Uptown is more modern and buzzing, with lots of traffic, shopping malls and bars. The most striking feature were the street hawkers who would wander between the cars at traffic lights. This seemed odd at first but by the end of the week totally practical. I wish in England someone would sell me a morning paper and some local bananas directly to my car window during rush hour.
At no time did I feel in danger. This was the biggest surprise, after being warned of the dangers of Jamaica I found myself walking down a street in central Kingston feeling safe and secure. Jamaicans are very friendly and they want you to fall in love with their country. The most common question I was asked after ‘where are you from?’ was ‘when will you come back?’.
Now, a place that cannot go without mention is the Blue Mountains. A retreat away from the city, a trip up into the peaks was a breathtaking experience. The tropical splendour of the scenery combined with the views back down over Kingston were fantastic. After an almost two hour drive upwards we popped out at a picnic park complete with pagodas and BBQ areas. That was the most surreal picnic I
have ever had, over 3000ft above sea level and at times in the clouds.
Kingston is not the most tourist friendly city, there are a few attractions to see, but we weren’t there to be tourists. We took the students to Kingston so that they could work with some of the poorer citizens of Jamaica. They taught a summer school for HIV positive boys living in an orphanage. HIV/AIDS is still a taboo in Jamaica but a charity called Mustard Seed provides homes for HIV positive children. We also worked in a home for disabled children run by monks from the
Missionaries of the Poor. Working in these homes was the real highlight of the trip for me. An eye opener for the students and a truly unique experience. I loved working with the children. The conditions of the disabled children’s home, known as Bethlehem, seemed shocking and stark at first. However, when I thought about the poverty of the surroundings in Downtown Kingston and I was given an idea of the relatively low standard of free healthcare in Jamaica generally, I saw them in a better light. The children were kept well fed and clean and, the longer I was there the more I realised, they were very well loved. The monks, staff and volunteers doted on those children who were so much fun to be around. I will never forget their joyful faces and the happiness they gave to everybody around them, despite the stark reality of their situation.
The most important message we all learnt in that week was that life is simply luck. We are all lucky to have been born into developed countries. The only thing between our lives and those of the children in that home is the chance of our birth.
The end of week one; I hadn’t been mugged, I had only used my first aid kit for mosquito bites and no student had done anything untoward, yet. I had survived in a very different country, but more than that, I had loved every second. Now off to Ocho Rios for a week of relaxation!