The flight from St. Louis to Jamaica took about three-and-a-half hours nonstop. The drive by van from Montego Bay, where we landed, to Southfield, where our camp is based, took about three hours. The drive might have been 80 miles. Does that tell you something? Never complain about Illinois roads until you have driven in Jamaica. Vehicles use the left side of the road. “Road” is a loose term in some places. Those roads are narrow, winding, and filled with potholes, especially en route to remote locations. The road to Joyland became a one-lane dirt road in spots. If two vehicles meet, one must pull over — if room exists to do that. If not, one vehicle backs up until its driver finds a spot. A horn is mandatory for driving — to let oncoming vehicles know you are coming around a bend. Oncoming vehicles miss each other by inches. Mirrors are often casualties. Along these remote roads you will find homes that could be called mansions in the United States, yet no airport is close and travel on the roads is far from ideal. Only one town, Junction, near where we stayed, had stores. Just outside Montego Bay is a city called. . . Chatham. And in the western part of this country is a city named . . . Springfield. One elderly woman, who did not know her age, climbed into a dentist’s chair and started to pull up her dress. “My poopoo hurts,” said the woman, who was not talking about her teeth. When she was outside the dental clinic, she used the yard for her restroom break. She had her last tooth pulled. Dental work fell into two primary categories — pulling and cleaning. Some filling was done at one location. Jamaican people are generally very friendly and were thankful for the dental care. Each of the three dentists or an assistant prayed with a patient each time before surgery. It was a perfect method of witnessing.
Students wear uniforms and look nice. At St. Vincent High School, across from our first dental clinic, in Bull Savannah, the boys wear black neckties. One white stripe signifies a fourth-year student, and two stripes are for fifth-year students. (High-school students attend for five years.) School can cost as much as $900 a year for grade-school students and $8,000 a year for high-school students, one Jamaican woman said. You don’t see high-school students in the U.S. playing soccer in white shirts and neckties. A St. Vincent teacher’s salary is about $7,200 for 12 months. Girls who become pregnant while students usually finish at a different high school. The main sports played by Jamaican children are football, which is our soccer, and cricket. One St. Vincent teacher from Kentucky had kids throwing an American football, but they preferred to be playing soccer. Girls play netball, which is similar to American basketball, but the basket has no backboard. Teeth were checked on orphans the first day. They remain in the orphanage until they are 18, with virtually no hope of being adopted, we were told. In some cases, at least one parent is alive and visits some, but often parents can’t afford to care for their children. Once they leave the orphanage, the children will likely go to college or learn a trade. Shockingly, on the second day of our second stop, only four Jamaicans showed up to have teeth pulled in Joyland, and only about five came to have their teeth cleaned. Apparently word had not been spread about the clinic. So Dr. Rob Burris of Springfield, the group leader, closed up the clinic and left for a deaf school, where the students were given fluoride treatments. The remote dental clinic was near Santa Cruz, which is in a lower-lying area and suffered major hurricane damage. Hurricane Ivan, which struck in September 2004, killed many people. The storm did considerable damage to the island and the camp where we stayed: The camp church lost its roof and has not been replaced; buildings at the camp were destroyed. Signs along the roads are unique. “Peep Up Bar” read one. Sports bars could be seen, and we spotted a variety of churches, including Seventh-Day Adventist and Methodist. The most common animal in our area was the goat. They are used for meat, not milk, at the camp where we stayed, but we were not served goat. Too many dogs are tied up at stakes on 3-foot chains. Even the goats got more room to roam. Given the privilege of naming two goats at the camp, I chose “Pujols” and “Eckstein” in honor of the Cardinals’ world championship. If you like chicken, Jamaica is your destination. We had chicken five of the six nights we were at the camp; kingfish was the other entrée. Chicken came in these forms: fried, sweet-and-sour, jerked, and stewed with bones. Rice and carrots were staples as well. Peanut butter and jelly often was on the noon menu. Dessert was not served by the Jamaican chef, who did not want to be called a cook. Women cook, he said. English is the main language spoken in Jamaica, but a form of broken English and words from other languages is called patois. Older children are easier to understand after they have had more English. One Web site says that Jamaica is famous for reggae and dreadlocks. One dreads-wearing man said that he had not had his hair cut in eight years. Two popular Jamaican expressions: “Yeah, mon,” meaning yes, and “Ya-so,” meaning “at this location.”
I wonder how much money the Jamaican bobsled teams from past Olympics have made for the country. (The 1988 Jamaican bobsled team inspired the 1993 movie Cool Runnings.) A souvenir stand offering bobsled merchandise was a popular stop in the Montego Bay airport, which is not to be confused with U.S. airports when it comes to seating. Bartering is the game you must play when shopping in Montego Bay, and it’s impossible to go into a store and shop on your own. Stop at one item, and the question is “What is your size?” There is really no reason to put a price on the merchandise, and many shops don’t. Make an offer, and it will usually be increased by the owner. Start to walk out the door, and the price will likely go down. One shirt priced at $30 was offered for $20, and it’s hard to tell what these items are worth. Bartering is not done at the airport, though. Don’t plan to do much in the evening outdoors in Jamaica; it’s dark by about 6 p.m. The sun appeared between 6 and 6:30 a.m. The temperature was perfect in January, which is one of the “colder” months.
Airline instructions intrigue me. We were thanked for our “forbearance” and told what we should do if we have a “water landing.” Water landings don’t interest me. A $1,000 Jamaican bill is a good conversation piece in the U.S. However, it is worth only about $16, given the 60-1 exchange rate.
The worst part of the trip? For many, it was the cold showers at the camp.
Larry Harnly’s story about his trip to the Dominican Republic, “Witnessing miracles,” was published in the Aug. 25 edition of Illinois Times.