Ryan Clarke - HIV/AIDS in Jamaica
Cool, calm, and collected; three words that, for one of first times in my life, described everything I wasn’t as our plane approached the north-coast of Jamaica. I had been determined to journey solo to Jamaica, exploring the true beauty of the land, which was the birthplace of an array of vibrant cultures, a joyfully distinctive dialect and, most importantly for me, my grandparents.
So why was I feeling a little nervous? Despite having been ridiculously excited for the entirety of the six months leading up to my trip, I was actually about to start a journey that had quite literally been only a figment of my dreams as a child – there’s something just a little ominous about standing at the door of your dream.
Arriving in Jamaica
If the nerves weren’t enough to handle, I soon found out that my flight was delayed. All I could imagine was that there would be nobody at the airport to meet me, but I’m happy to say I was wrong. Upon arriving in Montego Bay, my Volunteer Coordinator was present to meet me and was full of smiles. We instantly started going back and forth with a whole ton of jokes and banter; it’s fair to say all the nerves had vanished immediately.
Our driver took us both to my host mother, who was an absolute breath of fresh air. If Jamaica isn’t home to the largest senior population of loving and endearing women, I’ll be surprised. Not only was my bedroom in the most fresh and pristine condition, but there was also a just-cooked batch of rice and peas with fried chicken, steamed vegetables and plantain on the side.
My host family
I’ve already made a point of it once, but because she’s just THAT incredible of a lady, I’ll mention again that my host mother was a breath of fresh air. She was an extremely caring, vigilant, and attentive host, who did everything in her power to make my trip even more comfortable than it already was. I’m a fussy person when it comes to food, but that was never something that was made to be a problem; she simply asked me to inform her of any special requirements and without any hesitation, she made it all happen.
Being raised with Jamaican culture myself, my host mother and I got on extremely well and had a lot to talk about and reflect on; from politics to her days in the 60s spent down on Doctor’s Cave Beach. We both really enjoyed getting to know each other!
If my host mother wasn’t cool enough, she also had an amazing granddaughter who, despite being pretty young, held stimulating and long conversations in the evenings after she had finished school. One really cool memory I’ll never forget is when her fidget-spinner broke. Instead of asking for a new one, she collected bottle tops from the kitchen, grabbed her glue gun and a few sticks and within an hour, had made herself a new one. She is a very special child.
My free time in Montego Bay
Fortunately, the location of my placement was in the part of Jamaica I had always wanted to go to, Montego Bay. It really gave me time to explore the area and find out what really made ‘Mobay’ Mobay. Characterised by the St. James Street rush, Mobay town centre is a busy place with a lot to see and do, depending on what you enjoy.
Where food was concerned, I was in heaven. From the small shacks that sold a range of warm ‘box foods’ to Island Grill (where I probably devoured a couple too many jerk chicken and plantain burgers), there are several places for you to keep your stomach full.
Besides restaurants, the beaches in Mobay were definitely my favourite places to be. On most days after my placement had ended, I went to the beach, sat with my headphones in, and looked out at a never-ending ocean, with my book in my left hand and my jerk and plantain burger in the right. Jamaican sunsets on the beach are one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life and I waited almost every day for hours just to see the sunset.
One of my only regrets is that I didn’t spend even more time enjoying the nightlife – I should’ve been out every night! That being said, I did go to Pier 1 and Blue Beats a couple of times and I had a great time at both. I can guarantee that the Mobay population won’t allow you to have a bad time on a night out.
My placement with Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL)
JASL is the oldest and largest AIDS-focused human rights NGO in Jamaica. They have a vision of a Jamaican society that celebrates human diversity, preserves the rights and dignity of all, and provides services to all based on love, action and support. “Love” – if I had to describe my placement in one word, that would be it.
Why did I choose a Care placement? Personally, I’ve never been particularly interested in care-giving, medicine or anything health-related and, as an economics and modern language student, this wasn’t necessarily a placement in my line of work. However, I understand the severity of the problem of HIV-spreading in Jamaica and I was desperate to be a part of combatting it.
An exciting thing about my placement in particular was that day-to-day work was not necessarily consistent. On one day, my work would be focused on intervention work in nightclubs and in town centres, speaking to local people and conducting tests. On another day, I would be working at an in-house clinic session, which locals would come to from far and wide in order to get the clinical support they really needed.
Being a part of this kind of work was an entirely new experience for me. I wasn’t only exposed to some of the harsh realities of HIV sufferers, but I also spoke to many members of society I had never engaged with on a personal level before, such as sex workers. This experience opened my mind, humbled me, and showed me once again that each and every one of us only truly need love, understanding, and security in this life we live. Besides that, the JASL team made me feel like an important member of the family and I definitely made some lifelong friends in the process.
Travelling around Jamaica
Having travelled all over the Caribbean and to several other countries around the world, Jamaica is quite honestly the most beautiful place I’ve seen so far. There’s so much to see! However, being alone and having the courage to go and explore an island might be a little daunting for some people. The great thing about Projects Abroad is that there are often other volunteers on the island with you, who you can arrange to meet and go travelling with.
Getting around the island was an interesting experience to say the least. Getting to other towns along the north-coast, such as Ocho Rios, only took around 90 minutes, but places on the other side of the island, such as Kingston, took a couple of hours to reach. I remember being cramped up in a really small minibus full of people, sweating while still desperately trying to eat my jerk and plantain burger. I loved every minute of it!
Separating St. Ann and St. Mary, there’s an amazing spot named the Blue Hole, which is a must see as far as I’m concerned. It’s an amazing place where you and your friends can spend the day eating and drinking, diving in the river that separates two parishes, and enjoying a landscape created for us to marvel at.
The highlight of my holiday was reaching the peak of Blue Mountain, the highest point on the island, which after a long day of walking, was a pretty rewarding feeling. My advice to future volunteers is that if you climb Blue Mountain, climb it with other people and stay with them. If you get lost, it could get a bit sticky… but that’s a story for another day!
All in all, volunteering in Jamaica was an extremely rewarding experience. For a long time, it was a dream of mine to go and help back home and Projects Abroad gave me a platform to do just that. Furthermore, being in Jamaica really helped clear my head. It’s hard not to be relaxed and full of love and joy when you’re around Jamaican natives – they won’t have it any other way. In the spirit of the culture, “Gwaan an’ go book yuh flight!”
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.