“So, what’s your favorite place in Jamaica?”
This is a question I regularly hear from friends both here on the island and at home. It’s a hard one to answer, thinking of all the amazing things I’ve done and seen in the past six months. The more obvious places are the first that come to my mind: the cliffs in Negril that offer an incomparable view of the sun setting into the Caribbean Sea, the crystal clear river running behind a friend’s house in Ocho Rios, the restaurant on the beach that offers the best seafood my mouth has ever tasted. While each of these places are unique, unforgettable, and amazing, they are not my answer.
So, what really is my favorite place in Jamaica?
At the end of a long beat-up driveway, on the top of a hill, deep within the mountains, sits a modest baby blue building with a statue of Mary out front. On the second floor there is a small porch no wider than a hallway that wraps around the building, referred to by the residents as “the veranda.” Each afternoon, right after lunch, the women of the Mary Help of Christians Home line up a mismatched collection of wheelchairs, patio furniture, and couches to spend their afternoon on the veranda looking out onto the hills and chatting. My seat, usually a dark green lawn chair, has gradually become my favorite place in Jamaica. It was here that I learned my first Jamaican chorus, got my first Jamaican chastising, and was referred to as “my daughter” by a Jamaican for the first time. I’ve heard stories marked by dramatic poverty, violence, and oppression. More than any other single place, my seat on the veranda has helped me to build genuine friendships with the women I serve.
Miss Edna is one of these inspiring and complex women. When I first arrived at Balaclava, she was so quiet I wasn’t sure if she would be able to talk much. Each day when I visited and asked how she was doing, she would give me the same response:
“I have life. I’m blessed.”
Since getting to know her better, I’ve learned she has lived through multiple strokes and can no longer move the left side of her body. She never receives visitors and rarely speaks about her family. Her hesitation to get to know me, I discovered, was partly due to shyness and partly resultant of her experience working in segregated Florida during the 1960s. She went “a-foreign” seeking a new life and instead faced harsh, exploitative racism. Edna’s life has been anything but easy, yet she continues to see each new day as a gift. In her own words, she is blessed because she has life.
Each of the eleven female residents at Balaclava have given me more than I could ever help them in the hours we spend together. I occasionally try to imagine how I would react to living through the same circumstances, but there is no comparison. My weaknesses become even more apparent when I think of the strength and selflessness of my residents. So even though I’ve ridden a horse through ocean waves, swam with dolphins, and danced on a beach lit only by thousands of stars, nothing has compared to the hours I’ve spent sharing life on the veranda at Balaclava. I’ve always been drawn to adventure… doing and seeing amazing things. The past six months have shown me a whole new genre of adventure I’ve never thought to consider before. Seeing others, hearing their unique stories, and navigating to a foreign middle ground. This type of adventure may be less glamorous, but it is so much more enriching. Slowly, I am beginning to understand the words of Pope Francis:
“This is what helps you to mature in giving to others – to learn how to open your hand from your very own poverty.”