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Community, Disaster Management in Jamaica by John Mason

Volunteers on the beach

It is virtually impossible to sum up my Jamaican experience in a few short paragraphs. I was only there for four short weeks but the experience was enough to last several life times with enough anecdotes to keep several hundred grandchildren entertained.

I lived in the small town of Black River, a place huddled next to the gentle azure sea of Jamaica’s south coast, its grand colonial architecture slowly falling apart in the temperate sea air. It has a population of only 4000 people but is hardly a sleepy backwater!

The main street, running parallel to the rocky coastline, is bustling during the day; street hawkers ply their goods, old women lay out their yard’s produce in the back alleys, taxi drivers shout noisily for your custom, men saunter lazily in the shade of the colonnaded pavement; reggae music wafts from one of the clothes-shops whilst down the road a sound system mounted on a car roof blasts out loud gospel music, advertising God to passers by. Heat beats down, permeating the air and saturating your clothes with perspiration.

Me and other volunteers

Everything is loud; people are everywhere. The smells of petrol, sea salt, roadside Jerk stalls and detergent are intoxicating. The bustling market is alive with atmosphere: vendors sell every small good you could think of from ramshackle huts, most no bigger than garden sheds or Wendy Houses – haircuts, clothes, fruit, vegetables, meats, spare parts for various appliances and much more.

Black River provided me with my placement for the duration of my stay. I was working in the ‘Disaster Management Office’, a name for a department that dealt with natural hazards, planning, development, risk reduction, and public awareness to name but a few. I quickly discovered that the Jamaican way of life is a vastly different pace than that of the lives of people in the UK. Work was relaxed, the office atmosphere was informal and fun and my boss and volunteers felt like one big, happy family!

Every weekend, I ventured off with my new friends on exotic adventures in some of the most beautiful, paradise-like resorts to be found anywhere in the world.

Volunteers outside a traditional house

Weekend one was Treasure Beach, a sleepy place of incredible beauty but largely undiscovered by the tourists. We visited Pelican Bar, a ‘world-famous’ wooden bar (shack) in the middle of the sea, made of rickety wooden planks in a perilous state of near collapse; we sailed up Black River to see the famous crocodiles and mangrove swamps; and visited one of Jamaica’s premier natural phenomena, the stunning YS Falls: 36 metres of crashing crystal-clear water, Jacuzzis, and pools in the middle of dense tropical jungle.

Then there was Negril described by my guidebook as ‘a shrine to permissive self-indulgence’. . Imagine the perfect Caribbean resort with pure, white sand, a golden sun, shallow blue seas of astonishing clarity and picture-postcard sunsets. Then there was SUMFEST which was Jamaica’s equivalent of the music festival Glastonbury, with headline acts Usher and Shaggy. It is held in Montego Bay and was an incredible, intoxicating and exhausting experience.

Rastafarians are one of the most ubiquitous features of the island and are a staple feature of Jamaican life. Everywhere you go, you will see the trappings of Jamaica’s newest and most visible religion. Red, gold and green drape every other shop; Peace and One Love are emblazoned across fruit stalls; and dreadlocked men amble around happily greeting everyone with “Respect”. They’re always amiably interested in who you are, where you are from, and what you are doing; occasionally they will start preaching about One People with One Love, and remind you that we are all brothers and sisters heading to Zion. Nothing like a bit of philosophy to go with your beach holiday.

Boat and beach view

Then there was the food. Jerk Chicken and salt fish are two of Jamaica’s staple dishes; something you encounter absolutely everywhere! Then there is the tropical fruits; cool coconut juice to quench the summer thirst; everything fresh and exotic. Jamaican cuisine isn’t too varied, but it is certainly intriguing!

There is no better way to get to know a culture than to actually live with the people. I immersed myself in a totally new place and loved it: the food, the faces, the friends, the music, parties, beaches, sunshine, Rastafarians, and incredible natural beauty – as well as the poverty, inequality, insects, and frequent black outs. It added up to one overwhelming and all-encompassing insight into one of the world’s most beautiful and loudest islands. I've got to know Jamaica in an extraordinarily personal way - there is no better way to experience a country than to live with the locals instead of staying in an all inclusive resort. So there you have it. Four weeks in Jamaica… one experience of a lifetime.

John Mason

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