Junot Diaz, in his novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, recounts the protagonist’s trip from New York to the Dominican Republic to see his family. The novel, though about the Dominican Republic, is startlingly evocative of the entire Caribbean. Oscar, the novel’s hero, talks about the “whirligig that was life” in his family’s homeland. He lists the sights–the cops, the poor selling peanuts at intersections, the beaches, the “snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks,” the jokes, the music…but continually punctuates this list of spectacles with the “mind-boggling poverty” that he sees everywhere he turns.
I’m in the Caribbean, with the beaches, the snarling streets, the poor selling the peanuts at the intersection, the music, the rusting zinc shacks. I’m in Jamaica. It feels strange to write that, now, sitting in the PVI office in Mandeville, as it has been years since I worked here as a volunteer. It’s my second return trip to the island that gave me so much for so long.
Not much has changed in four years for the rural poor in Jamaica’s hidden hillside communities—in the words of Diaz, the “mind-boggling poverty” is still very much present. I am largely unable to help the poor on this trip—the communities that the volunteers serve in Mandeville do not and will never belong to me.
I envy the the incoming volunteers here in Jamaica. When you live among the grit and the grime and grind of hunger, poverty, and disease, as the volunteers do, it becomes a day at the office. If you’re lucky enough to be a PVI, to have a job that lets you participate, you do what you can to listen, to organize, to network, to link the poor with some zinc and a few seeds, or a chicken, or a homework group, or a library, or a hug.
I was able to do some of those things as a volunteer. But now, I’m rather ineffective in the face of poverty.
My only redemption lies in my reason for being here, for this return trip is no vacation. This return trip puts me, for the first time, into the “staff” category of my beloved Passionist Volunteers International. I’m here to assist. To help the new tenth (tenth! can we even believe it?) group of volunteers transition into their new life. It is a blessing that redeems me and gives me hope.
This trip, this experience, gives me the opportunity for meaning. I was able to see my friends in Stony Hill and Mount Friendship. I can hold babies and hug the elderly and hike through the bush in search of coconuts. I can spend time with the new volunteers and impart what little knowledge I’ve guarded and retained about Jamaican life and culture. I can accompany PVI as it evolves and grows into what it is meant to be. The greatest joy of this trip is the opportunity to serve Passionist Volunteers International in a new and different way, and for that I am so very grateful. I am grateful for the time, for the chance to serve, and for the ability to enter again into the “whirligig” that is life here in the Caribbean.