Jamaica-isms that Confused me (at First)

Baggy:  When one of the guys asked us if we had any containers and Amanda said, “No, but  we’ve got lots of baggies,” we couldn’t understand why he burst out laughing.  This is when we learned that “baggy” is Patois for “panties.” Boots: When I started asking questions about prostitution in Jamaica, I was told that New Kingston (the city business center with a lot of highrises) was notorious for a thriving, nightly sex trade.  The problem had come to light because of the complaints of office workers about the large number of boots left behind on the ground each morning.  I was picturing this: th Huh? Turns out what they meant was this: 51IJMGCHSxLPatois.  It will get you every time! Gaza/West Side!:  This is one of the first things I was taught when I arrived: hmMge What it meant and why it kept getting flashed around I wasn’t really sure.  Thankfully, I kept to the straight and narrow path of the more traditional greetings because I’ve since learned that Gaza and/or West Side has come to be associated with Kartel, a popular reggae artist who is also a convicted murderer. According to the man on the street, they never found the body but the victim’s girlfriend received a number of texts (“They’re going to kill me!”) and there are some pretty incriminating phone records of Kartel telling an associate to bring him shoes (i.e. guns). Kartel supporters flash the sign in solidarity, but many Jamaicans think he was just plain stupid to forfeit all his success and opportunities (and for doing such a poor job of covering his tracks). Baby Mama: This is one I don’t think I’ll ever really understand.  Many, many, many Jamaican men find nothing wrong with having one or more of the following at any given time: a wife, a sugar mama, a girlfriend, and a baby mama.  If you clicked the link in the “Boots” section, you read that 85% of Jamaicans who are born do not have their father’s name on their birth certificate. Just before Father’s Day, I was talking with a girl who works at Mustard Seed and telling her that even though I wouldn’t be seeing my father, I was going to call him.  Then I asked her if she’d be seeing her dad.  No, he didn’t live in Kingston.  Oh, did she ever get to go visit him?  An incredibly sad look came into her eyes.  “In Jamaica it is not common for children to know their fathers.” 90% of Mustard Seed’s residents were abandoned by their families.  Unfortunately for many of them, adoption will never be an option.  Lawyers have been working for years to track down birth certificates but it is a slow, unfruitful process.  In cases where parentage is known the fathers refuse to sign over their parental rights.  These men don’t want to give “their” child to someone else, even though they themselves are doing absolutely nothing to care for their son(s) or daughter(s). There is a cost to all of this and it’s the little ones who are paying it.

London Burning


London burning, London burning

Look yonder, Look yonder

Fire, fire!

Fire, fire!

And we have no water

This is absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, one thousand and ten percent our favorite Circle Time song at My Father’s House.

By the end of the second “London burning” the circle (which is really more of a squashed oval) has erupted into shrieks of delight and bubbling laughter.  Arms flail and wheelchairs shake and those who are able join in with all their might and main on “Look yonder, Look yonder!”

But lest you suspect the 20 some residents of MFH of harboring a deep, dark grudge against the Brits some 52 years after Jamaica achieved independence, I should explain.

Mrs. Pearsons emerges from the laundry room, toting two purple & green water pumps.  She stalks the circle, singing all the while.

Fire, fire!

Fire, fire!

And we have no water

So call the fireman, Call the fireman

Put the first water pump in Devon’s hands.  Help him pump.  Water sprays everywhere.  The kids in the line of fire – excuse me, water – can barely contain their delight.

Look yonder, Look yonder

Fire, fire!

Fire, fire!

And we have no water

One of the toddlers take it in the face and startled, blinks rapidly at this uncalled for second bath of the day.

So call the firewoman, Call the firewoman

Look yonder, Look yonder

The second pump is in Sasha’s hands and she totters on unsteady legs but manages to soak the three wheelchair bound residents next to her.  More laughter.  Natty tries desperately to stick an uncooperative arm in the air, hoping to be chosen as the next fireperson.  Darn you, Cerebral Palsy!

First verse again!

London burning, London burning

Look yonder, Look yonder

Fire, fire!

Fire, fire!

And we have no water

Almost everyone in the circle has had a turn by now and the atmosphere becomes noticeably charged.  The anticipation is about to bust our seat belts.

All this time, Ramone has been dogging Mrs. Pearsons’ steps, making futile grabs for a pump.  Now, she turns to him and the trash talking begins.

“You want to take me?  You think you can take me?”

“Yeah!” Ramone giggles hysterically.

It’s on.

Like boxers in the ring, they circle each other.  Mrs. Pearsons, still singing and stalking in time to the rhythm.  Ramone, rollicking on the inside of his right ankle, right arm permanently clawed up to his chest.

She aims, she squirts!

Ramone is about to choke with joy but still manages to get in a few good shots before they both run out of ammo.

Back to the water bucket!

Ramone has the advantage this time!  A full pump thanks to Aunty Sarah but what’s this?  Oh no!  He’s off balance and all his water is hitting the pavement!

But Mrs. Pearsons is giving no quarter!  She -

Devrow!  Get your head out of the bucket!

Where were we?  Oh, yes, she soaks Ramone’s head and shoulders, routing him utterly.  The audience roars.  He takes off for the shelter of the babies’ room, but she is right behind him.

They emerge from the other end of the room but now he is chasing her.  Oh, it’s too much!  We really can’t contain our excitement!

Another trip to the water bucket, with much the same result.  We’d say Mrs. Pearsons had the best of the encounter, if Ramone wasn’t laughing so hard.

“Oh, Lord, I’m tired!” says Mrs. Pearsons.

We’ll do it all again tomorrow!  Yeah, Mon, we will!

Tavoy, or Tavar?, the Irresistible

Tavoy or Tavar – to quote Shawn Spencer, “I’ve seen it both ways” – is one of the little guys I inherited from my first roommate/fellow volunteer here in Jamaica. She spent a lot of time with him doing art projects and reading stories and he in turn adored his “Uncle Catherine.” One of the most tragicomical things I’ve ever seen is Tavoy or Tavar clutching Catherine’s leg and sobbing (crocodile tears and all) during every single one of the smiling, happy-face goodbye pictures she was taking with the other kids on her last day. It made an impression.

His legs don’t work but wheelchairs aren’t his favorite things. You can usually find him scooting himself along on the ground, sliding on his calves and pulling himself forward with his arms.

He’s a little cutie who can melt into tears of epic proportions without the slightest warning. That’s Epic as in the “spoiled thirteen-year-old girl who just broke up with her first boyfriend and had a Facebook fight with her best friend and was asked to load the dishwasher by her mom” variety.

It’s something to behold.

And as if all this wasn’t great enough, he has this trick of scooting himself out the door and into the middle of the walkway whenever he realizes you are leaving to shout, “Aunty, me!”

Since scooting takes a while, you’re normally all the way at the other end by the time he shows up. But I defy anyone to look over their shoulder as they’re sprinting for the bus and not change directions when they see this:

Tavoy (or Tavar – I’ve seen it both ways) on his knees, arms uplifted in supplication, and a confident-in-your-coming smile already stretching across his face.

But if you do by some superhuman effort resist, his “Aunty, one more hug!” will finish you no matter how many people are in the bus waiting.

I guarantee it.

Cinchona Botanical Gardens

This amazing place:


Was reached after riding in the back of a pickup truck up a one lane road that began as potholed pavement before turning to dirt before turning to, strangely enough, cobblestone.  Which was followed by a 3 1/2 mile hike up this:

blue mountain hike

Our hike began in lush jungle grasses that turned into coffee tree farms and then, as we neared the top – desolation.  A recent fire that had started on one side of the ridge had swept over to the other side, charring pine trees, consuming the grass.  Would there be anything left to see of the Botanical Gardens on top of the mountain?

Incredibly, yes.  We rounded a bend and left behind the ashy landscape just as quickly as we had entered it.  This is what we saw:


Years ago, the British sought out the sub-tropic zone of this peak in the Blue and John Crown Mountain ranges.

Here, Cinchona, Eucalyptus, Pine, and other plants that would have died on the hot tropical plains flourished.

Here, they developed treatments for the dreaded Yellow Fever.

And here, we came to spend a fabulous afternoon on August 6, Jamaica’s Independence Day!

Old, stone ponds with purple water lilies.  A crumbling great house.  Unexpected twists and turns in the moss covered paths underneath the bamboo.  A pattering of feet and scratching of claws as something went running at my approach.  And the views.

Oh my lord, the views!


I sat for a long time on a bench, watching the clouds descend on a mountain across the valley.  Jamaica is the first place where I have found myself able to simply “Be still and know that [He] is God.”  Something about the beauty of the water, earth, and sky enables me to empty my mind of all distractions and just Be.

I think it affected some of the others the same way, because on our 3 1/2 mile hike back down the mountain, Javon (our driver) and I had a long conversation about faith and its impact on our lives.

The best part for me was when he began talking about his commitment to his wife (“monogamy” is NOT a word in the average Jamaican male’s vocabulary).  “Sometimes my friends will be saying, ‘Mon, that girl likes you.  You should go get her.’  I tell them ‘No, Mon, that would be a sin.  How could I do that after I prayed to God for her?  And now that He has given her to me, I’m just going to go cheat?’  I have to remember the time when I had no wife at all.  And then I am thankful for what I have right now.   I don’t need to cheat.”

Speaking of love and marriage . . .

On our way back down the mountain later that evening, about 4 random guys jumped in the back of our pickup truck.  Nothing like hitching a free ride down the mountain when it’s cold and misty out!

3 eventually got out, but one still hadn’t reached his destination yet when we overtook a woman and offered her a ride.  She also rode in the back and before too long Last Man Riding was putting her # into his mobile.  (Yes, I was spying out of the corner of my eye while pretending to gaze at the fluorescent red cross someone had erected on top of the mountain across the valley..  No, I did not feel guilty about it.)

Did we inadvertently begin a love that will last a lifetime all because we decided to go hiking?  My fellow volunteers rather realistically projected two nights (if that) but I prefer to think positive thoughts ;-)

Kevon, the Runner

“Aunty Sarah, come here!” a stilted little voice commands.

When I first arrived at Mustard Seed, Kevon (pronounced Kay-Von) used a bright yellow walker to get around. Lately, he’s abandoned it in order to walk on his own. I am fully in favor of this for three reasons.

One: Social – Greater independence.

Two: Physical – Strengthening his core, exercising his leg muscles, improving his balance.

Three: Selfish – he walks like a cross between a zombie and a mummy.

There’s not much that’s better than seeing an adorable kid come lurching towards you like one of The Undead out of the peace and quiet of the Jerusalem! chapel.

Plus, I always know what’s coming next. The slightly crinkled nose. The narrowed eyes. The head jut forward. And then . . .

The big, happy smile. The arms stretched out and up as far as they will go. And the “run” straight into my arms.

He also knows what’s coming next. The tight squeeze. The sudden lifting off the ground. And the swinging around and around and around and his terrified shrieks that are followed by “Aunty Sarah’s!!!” that are followed by laughter.

It’s a moment of perfection that gives me a glimpse of what God must feel when we come to Him asking for forgiveness (again) or direction (again) or comfort (again) or any one of the dozens of things we always seem to be needing.

What matters is not the stilted manner of our request-command or how funny we look when we are running.

What matters is simply the fact that we are coming.

Dutchie Culinary Festival

“Spread the culture, spread the culture!”

The crowd around the Dutch Pot Cooking Demo booth was insane. In fact, one of the cooks – a petite, sweet voiced woman – compared the salivating horde to a group of children and scolded/reminded them that just like a mother, she herself only had two arms.

This calmed them for all of 30 seconds.

In their defense, the cornmeal porridge wrapped in banana leaf and boiled in water over a charcoal fire smelled – and tasted – amazing. As did the bread pudding.

I got to buy a slice of the latter (just getting to purchase something at this booth was a privilege. The demand was that intense. And don’t even get me started on samples) due to the intervention of an incredibly nice Jamaican mon.

He started out by encouraging me to push myself forward and make my wishes known. But I was no match for the Fluffy Divas in search of food and he soon realized it. He called out my order to the four chefs who were frantically trying to keep up with the requests and reminded them that it was their duty to “spread the culture” to the white girl.

Somehow this worked. So green shirt guy with the braids, thank you. I loved the bread pudding and the fact that you didn’t want anything (name, phone #, invitation to the US) in return. Every once in a while, it’s nice to be helped – just because.

The Dutchie Culinary Festival was part of the “Emancipendence” celebrations being held all over the island. The Jamaican Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) did a fabulous job pulling together this event (the first time it’s been held).


There were ice carving demonstrations:



There were 3-legged races, dominoes games, and phone credit giveaways.

There were fruit and vegetable carving demonstrations:



There was a Pickney-pendence Tent were children could go to learn about Jamaica’s road to freedom.

There was a celebrity cook-off featuring DJ Sparks, Dr. NIcely, and several local chefs:


Miss Jamaica made several tours of the grounds.

And there were two concerts featuring traditional drummers, dancers, singers, and musicians.

The energy on stage was incredible, as the Charles Town Maroons drummed, danced, and chanted without pause for over 10 minutes. A primary school sent 8 students who danced quadrilles and refused to be daunted by hiccups with the sound system. Reggae artist Duane Stephenson and a gospel quartet closed out the Festival as the sun set. (Nothing quite like listening to some fabulous music while gazing at the mountains and a blue-pink sky.)

The real show-stopper though, was an 11-year-old boy. At first, I thought the three classmates who were playing instruments on stage were accompanying recorded vocals – the kid was that good. He sang “Smile for Me, Jamaica” and Pharrell William’ “Happy” but really got the crowd going with “My Girl” – especially when he pulled his grandmother up on stage and began crooning to her.

The entire day was such a blast, but in a very meaningful way.  Jamaicans of all ages were celebrating the 1838 emancipation of Jamaica’s slaves and their 1962 independence from British colonial rule.

The festival could have simply been a reminder of the tragic parts of Jamaica’s history. Instead it was a celebration of the beautiful nation that has grown out of the struggle. Slaves, indigenous peoples, indentured servants, slave owners, and occupying soldiers – all had a part in forming Jamaica’s rich cultural heritage.

What has the power in our life?

Who/what do we give dominion to in our hearts and minds?

Are we in essence “celebrating” the tragedies by the way we live our lives?

Or the triumphs?

John, the Irrepressible

A typical breakfast conversation at Jerusalem!:

John: I am eating my cornmeal.  Pooooridge.  I like my porridge.  Sarah, I am eating my cornmeal.  Pooooridge.  I like it.  Nyron, Vinroy, Claude, and David.  They like.  Pooooridge.  The porridge is in a.  Booowl.

Claude: Stop your noise.

John: Stop my.  Noooiiiise?

Claude:  Stop your noise.

John: Stop my.  Noooiiise!

Aunty, coming to the rescue: John!  Can you eat and talk at the same time?  No!  So stop your noise and eat your porridge.

John:  I will stop my noise and eat my.  Pooooridge.  I will eat my porridge with my.  Spooooon.  I like cornmeal -

Aunty: John!


. .

. . .

. . . .

. . .

. .


John: Sarah, wha gwan?  I am eating my cornmeal.  Poooridge.  I will sit at the.  Taaable.  To eat my.  Pooooridge.  It is cornmeal what?  Pooooridge!


Whoever coined the phrase “Autism Speaks,” obviously spent some quality time with John!