Running in Jamaica is like one of two extremes: running through a strip club or a retirement home. Most of the time, these dueling personalities of Jamaica attack within mere minutes of each other, sometimes seconds, throwing the runner into a confused bipolar response mode. Because of this, sometimes a nice old church lady wearing a hat will get rudely ignored before I realize that she just cheerily said 'Good morning!' to me, and was in fact not attempting to get my number, not very subtly staring at everything but my face, nor asking if she can join me on my run. It is rather disorienting to pass a group of ladies who seem beyond overjoyed to see a female running for fitness, as if I am a one woman parade, and then moments later be relentlessly hissed at by a group of males who are a little too excited by a female sweating all over the place, as if I was getting a workout on a stage with a pole, not on a road full of potholes. These sorts of interactions makes running in Jamaica not just a physical exertion, but also a mental exercise in the use of my verbal filter.
Since being in Port Antonio, I have spent a lot of time running. I had been training for a half marathon that happened on December 3rd, so I was waking up super early a few times a week to go on sunrise runs, and on days I didn't want to drag my sleepy ass out of bed, I ran in the evenings. The morning runs were usually the best; people hadn't quite started functioning yet, so I was able to run in comparable peace, unlike the evening runs. When Jamaica did start to wake up, people were typically moving about in a productive way, getting to places like work and school. This meant I usually was able to make it through my whole run with friendly interactions consisting of a wave and a hello. However, in the evenings, people, mainly males, were out on the streets to entertain themselves, sit around and try to sell you coconuts when you clearly didn't want to be carrying anything more than yourself and your sweat-soaked clothes. It was on these nights that I had the most ridiculous and sometimes infuriating interactions.
I am always surprised by how persistent and confident Jamaican males are when they attempt to get your contact information, including but not limited to phone number, email, pager number, fax number, Facebook, Twitter, passenger pigeon perch, home address, Pony Express P.O. Box number, office address and when all else fails, where to look in the sky for smoke signals. Even if there is no possible way for them to contact you, they will make sure you have a way to contact them. My favorite incident involves a man on a motorcycle.
One evening I was about a quarter of a mile from home, happy with my run and the fact that I hadn't been hit on yet when a motorcycle blew by me going the other way. I knew as soon as he passed that he was going to be turning around; my radar for imminent wanna-be-future-husbands has been well-developed during my short time in Jamaica. He slammed on his brakes, flipped a bitch and proceeded to stop in front of me. He flashed a smile and put his hand up like a policeman directing traffic, only he was attempting to direct a determined runner who was not about to kill the groove they were in. I smiled and said 'Hello!' in a rather ditzy way, like I had no idea what this whole hand in the air thing was about, and continued on past him.
Pretending to be deaf or mentally impaired is usually a good deterrent, but not in this case. Motorcycle man decided that he was going to ride alongside me, filling the air with exhaust and creating a rather awkward moving roadblock. 'Girl, you look so fit and fine, I like you. What is your number?' was pretty much all he said to me, just re-worded and regurgitated back at me, no matter what I said. I managed to be polite despite choking on his motorcycle fumes and wanting to be done with my run right at that very moment. I told him I didn't have a phone, so therefore I lacked a number to give to him. Sorry, man. Apparently a dumb deaf girl without a phone number is a prime catch, because his persistence did not falter in the least. In a stroke of creative genius, he announced that he was going to go get paper and a pen so he could write his number down for me. And with that he vroomed off on his two wheeled craft, in a hasty pursuit of a writing apparatus and parchment that promised a future date.
I ran that last quarter of a mile home faster than I ever have. I was in a practical sprint and was prepared to jump in the bushes at any moment upon hearing the sound of his motorcycle engine. That's one nice benefit of unwanted attention, it can give you an unexpected interval workout. I managed to make it home before he was on his way back to give me what I've always wanted, his phone number, and only slightly feeling like I was going to pass out from the combination of increased breathing and slight panic. I have a better understanding of what it feels like to be a field mouse emerging from its hole to find a hawk circling above, ready to divebomb and leave no survivors. With a quick scurry and rapid intake of air, I was back in my safe little hole of home without further incident.
But for every annoying and obnoxious encounter on the road, there is a friendly and pleasant one to make up for it. I sometimes run through a hilly neighborhood scheme down the highway from my scheme, where people are always milling about. After the first few runs of full stares that said 'Whitey, why are you huffing and puffing up a large hill for fun? Did you get a bad fever as a child, frying your brain for life?', I became less of a traveling freak-show and more of just that whitey who runs up and down this hill for some unknown reason. The older ladies and gentlemen in the scheme were always so happy to see me, with big smiles and hellos when I would pass, sometimes even verbal encouragement and a thumbs up. There are few other places I have seen such joy on strangers' faces upon just seeing me going about my business. One such other place is a senior home. Just by gracing the halls with your youthful presence, the elderly people loitering about, just as Jamaicans hang out on the corner, bust out huge smiles and greet you with extreme excitement. I bet if I was to offer to stop and play cards with any one of these great people, they would have a heart attack right on the spot. And my nice gesture would backfire and I would feel guilty for life. So maybe I will avoid that situation and just continue to please them with my sweaty passing.
When I first started applying for Peace Corps, I was worried about what my physical activity level was going to be during service. I have a whole post about it on this blog, which is hilarious to go back and read now. Jamaica has been perfect for me in that sense; here I can run, swim, bike and just generally be active. I have grown to love swimming in the ocean, being wet and covered with sand, which if you knew anything about me before Jamaica, this is a huge change. So thanks Jamaica, for allowing me to continue my exercise addiction and be that weird white girl who does things that are not really all that fun for fun.