Woodstock 1969, I would have loved to be there, but I was only 5. Instead, it was 1983, 15 college students with backpacks and sleeping bags driving in vans to Miami to catch our flight to Jamaica. We weren’t heading to the beaches, we were going on a ‘cross-cultural” trip to experience life in the hills of a “developing” country. I knew no one on this trip because the guy, on whom I had a mad crush, backed out at the last minute.
As we flew over the Caribbean Sea, I tried to reset my mind for a trip without that person. Being from a family that did road trips, I was amazed at the water clarity being able to see the ocean floor and reefs from the plane. This is where my love affair with Wendell ended and my never ending love affair with “window seats” began. A six hour van ride up the mountains, on dirt roads with no guardrails, ended in the village of Mahoe, where we were to live for a few weeks. The villagers had made each of us a beautiful walking stick personalized with our name. Of course, I broke mine on the last day, trying not to fall down the mountain. They also handed each of us a brown paper bag and said “Welcome to Jamaica!” You can guess what was in the bag!
The “house” consisted of multiple one-room buildings on the hilltop made from corrugated tin walls and ceilings. The sleeping house had an old foam mattress bed whose middle grabbed you like quicksand, so many of us slept on the floor that we shared with lizards and huge lighting bugs. Screams were heard frequently the first few nights when a lizard strolled across someone’s body, but tapered off as we got used to our companions. The outhouse, kitchen and shower were spread out on the hilltop, also made from aluminum siding. The shower was a garden hose that trickled cold water over the top. Warm drinks and cold showers took some patience to get used to, but luckily the hot, humid days made the shower feel welcome after a long day of work. All the cooking was done over an open fire. We arrived with a few gallons of peanut butter, evidently requested by the people in the village from the last time the trip leader was there. To this day, I love bananas with peanut butter. Supper consisted mostly of rice, beans, and yams with bread and fruit or fruit drinks. Occasional vegetable soup was a treat.
During the day we worked with various farmers in the village using machetes. Jamaicans have no problem with terrace farming, but for us, especially me with my slight Cerebral Palsy and tendency to “Tanis trips”, sitting down while working was the only option because of the 12 inch machete in my hand. We grew coffee, yams, beans, and cabbage. The coffee took forever to produce because it’s all done by hand through a process of picking the beans, pounding them, rinsing them, separating out the bad ones, cooking them, then mashing to the tune of 6 hours to make 1.5 cups of ground coffee. I often still think about the human effort involved when enjoying my morning “cup of Joe”.
I had the opportunity to work in the village school for a few days and maybe that’s where my love of teaching started. At first the younger children couldn’t get over the fact that I was white, wanting to play with my hair and see every part of my body. Communicating was challenging due to our different English accents, along with their Creole mix of French, and some Spanish words as well. I taught them the game “Ring Around the Rosey”; they taught me some Jamaican Patois or Patwa words like sistren for a female friend .
In the afternoons we would have discussions about Jamaican lifestyle, a daily struggle for survival living off the land in the rugged Blue Mountains. They were people of tremendous faith and happiness in simplicity. At age 18, this experience in a less developed region shaped my perception of the world. This life required intense connection to the land and fellow villagers. We discussed issues like nuclear weapons, women’s liberation, world hunger, and the relationship between countries based on capital, labor and resources. My view of the industrialized world, including the U.S. was challenged. I’m sure this influenced my decision later in life to earn a Master’s degree in International Relations, travel more, and tell my high school students to get abroad for a while before age 21 to see some of the world.
What I distinctly remember was the difficult cultural reentry when I arrived back in the states. My parents, bless them, wanted to show me a good time and the first day home we went out on Lake Huron with some of their good friends. They had a beautiful boat, but I felt so awkward trying to readjust to the material wealth here in the United States, and had no idea what to say when they asked about my trip. I’ve always found that coming home is much more difficult than going abroad to experience a new culture. Traveling realigns my soul, it changes me and helps me grow in ways that are challenging to express to others.
I’ve come to realize that asking someone the general question “How was your trip?” is a difficult one for them to answer. How inquisitive is the questioner, really? Which version of the answer do they want - the singular version “great”, the 30 second version with one highlight, or the get a glass of wine and let’s chat version? My mom recently returned from a bucket list trip to Israel and Jordan. I tried not to ask how her trip was, but instead asked her what surprised her the most about the food or the people and where was the place she felt most grateful to be able to visit. Her answers were thoughtful, specific, and interesting. Traveling has taught me that asking specific questions about the emotional and cognitive experiences a person has is much more interesting than to just ask “How was your trip?” and get the “great” response. Travelers really do want to share their experiences, it’s just hard sometimes to put it into words. I hope you’re enjoying my words on “Tanistrips”!