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Debbie Willcox - Disaster Management in Jamaica

With my host family

My name is Debbie Willcox and after being made redundant I decided I wanted to do some traveling. Although I considered conventionally backpacking around, I felt a real urge to experience life in a different culture from “within”. The Disaster Management Project in Jamaica fitted all of my criteria; it was in an exotic and very different place from home; I would be living and working with Jamaicans rather than fellow tourists; I would have the support and friendship of Projects Abroad and other volunteers; and the work would be relevant to the work I do at home as an environmental planner. I signed up and having had the experience, I am so glad I did.

My Jamaican host family

My host family were amazing people, just so friendly, kind and welcoming. I was introduced to a large extended family and I fell in love with the kids, the pets, the goats and the food. My host “mother” was an amazing cook and I was introduced to delicacies such as jerk chicken, fried plantain with spicy scrambled egg and fish in brown stew (my mouth is salivating as I write.) Along with my roommate, another volunteer, I was included in family activities and felt thoroughly at home in a very few days.

With other volunteers

My placement was in Mandeville, and just walking through the town was such a different experience from home. It is such a vibrant place, with fruit sellers on every corner selling delicious fresh fruit, reggae music pounding from stereos and so many people wanting to talk to us. Everyone we met was fun and helpful, with a wicked sense of humor. People would go out of their way to give directions, advise on the best places to shop or eat or provide shelter from the occasional but sudden torrential downpours.

The Disaster Management Project

My placement itself was at Manchester Parish Council, and I was lucky enough to be there during the National Disaster Simulation Day. This involved all the parishes on the Island responding to a variety of simulated emergencies, all based around the likely events that would result from a hurricane. My supervisor ensured I was fully involved, working with representatives from the hospital, police, fire service, Red Cross and the army to plan responses to the frantically flowing messages. It was a fascinating experience.

The rest of my placement was calmer, but included work such as researching new and innovative disaster management initiatives that are being trialed in other locations in the Caribbean, working on a Climate Change webpage and attending meetings and site visits to do with a potential new tourist attraction which was in jeopardy due to river contamination.

Waterfall

While we worked hard, we also had an excellent social life. I met a number of other volunteers on my induction day and was then lucky enough to have a roommate. We would regularly meet with volunteers and local friends we had made in the evenings at a number of nice restaurants or bars. I developed a love of strawberry daiquiris, was persuaded to do karaoke for the first (and probably last) time and enjoyed a number of live music acts.

Traveling at weekends

However the best part of the whole experience was the traveling around the island that we did on the weekends. Along with other volunteers, I got to go SumFest in Montego Bay, the biggest reggae music festival in the world; I climbed a waterfall in Ocho Rios; and I did parasailing and cliff-jumping in Negril. We trekked and swam in some of the most beautiful locations I have ever seen.

The trips also weren’t particularly expensive; we squeezed as many girls as we could into rooms at small, family run hotels or beach cabins, we ate amazing tasting food in back-street or beach-side little restaurants and took local buses over the island, which in themselves often turned into impromptu parties.

Projects Abroad support

Parasailing

The Projects Abroad staff was really helpful, fun and friendly. Our induction was very helpful at orientating us in the town and we were always able to pop in to the office or phone if we needed any advice. They also put on a number of events including a dancehall class and a Jamaican Colors fancy dress party where I got to meet all the other volunteers in the area.

I am so glad I signed up for the project and if I could I would go back tomorrow. The laid-back, yet exciting and vibrant culture of Jamaica is an experience I would encourage anyone to try, and personally I believe that the best way to enjoy is to be introduced by local people such as a host family, colleagues and/or the Projects Abroad staff.

Debbie Willcox

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