How has this experience impacted your future? (Personally, professionally, academically, etc)
Reni: Going to Jamaica was a very eye-opening experience for me. It gave me a glimpse of the world of "development", something that I have studied on a theoretical level but never really experienced personally. I gained an understanding of how a project works, what the work involves and how people respond to the project environment. I am convinced that working for the Social Development Commission and the skills I gained while volunteering will be very useful for boosting my CV and thus helping me build a career in the charity/NGO/Government sector. On a more personal level, it showed me that I can be very brave and open-minded, but I also learned how to truly relax and live in the present moment.
Do you feel you got a chance to see the city from a local's perspective?
Reni: Definitely, yes! Rather than going to tourist attractions, my friend and I decided to make friends with local people and try to really immerse ourselves in the Jamaican lifestyle.
By the end of our trip we had created amazing friendships and experienced things tourists could never see. We have spent hours cooking and relaxing at our friends' houses or simply going to the tiny road bars to enjoy a glass of white rum or a Dragon stout. We knew literally everyone who lived or worked in our area and felt as if we are part of the community. Our Rastafari friends taught us a lot about Jamaican herbs, roots, tree bark, used for making healthy potions or simply to spice up your food. The parties we went to were definitely not the parties regular tourists went to. Most were in small towns where tourists never set foot because of Jamaica's reputation as a "dangerous country". Our experience, however, was extremely positive and people were very welcoming and friendly.
Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.
Reni: A week before we left Jamaica, we were invited to go to an interview in Buff Bay, a town in the neighbouring parish of Portland. We had to take three taxis and minibuses from one town to another (Oracabessa - Port Maria - Annotto Bay - Buff Bay) in order to get there, but when we arrived in Annotto Bay I realized my wallet is missing. I had about 15 000 JMD (about 100 USD) in it AND my Visa card. I panicked, of course, and decided to go back to Port Maria and look for it. I thought I lost it when I was leaving the first minibus so I decided to go and ask the minibus driver, but I could not find the minibus in the transport centre. I was incredibly surprised by the fact that the other drivers realized that something is wrong and came to ask if they could help me in some way. I explained the situation and 5-6 drivers started calling all their colleagues asking about my minibus and its driver. These people took time to help me with my problem while their customers were waiting to leave!
Unfortunately, we couldn't find the minibus and I left the transport centre. As I was starting to despair I met another friend, a Rastafari man, who started walking with me and wanted to help. Out of nowhere, the taxi driver that took us to Annotto Bay appeared carrying my wallet with all my money and my Visa card still in it! The Rasta brought me luck! A truly incredible day.
What is one piece of advice you'd give future volunteers or participants traveling with your program?
Reni: Stay open-minded and embrace things as they come whether at work, party, travelling around or even having food. Jamaica can be a truly tough place for those who cannot easily adjust to changes, but if you are willing to accept differences and learn about new cultures without judging then Jamaica will bewilder, but also inspire you! For more information, read my blog Down the Bumpy Road.