In the beginning…
In January 2014, I embarked on an adventure with my sister to Jamaica, I had no idea what I was getting into and it was shock to the senses when I finally did arrive. I touched down in Kingston on a hot January afternoon; I had waited for three months, with anticipation, to finally see my family’s home country and I was excited to meet people that I wouldn’t necessarily associate with in England and to understand the culture of my ancestors. I had done my research into Jamaica before heading there, talked to a family friend who had been there several times and I was in high spirits, eager to get stuck into a country that I had never been before. I remember the drive from the airport to where we were staying and I also remember, vividly, the look of horror that passed between my sister and I as it finally dawned on us that Jamaica wasn’t the tropical paradise that we had, so foolishly, envisioned.
“What have we gotten ourselves into?”
I asked her, she shrugged and looked gloomily out of the window at the crumbling roads, non-existent pavements and the shambles of a city where we had committed to spend three months. I had it in my head that the country would be one big beach, with thousands of palm trees to sit under to get away from the relentlessly hot sun; cocktails would be served by be-suited male models and there would be an endless supply of everything that I would ever think of needing.
What the advertisements do not reveal is the abundance of poverty that chokes the streets; on every corner there is someone who is homeless, be it man, woman or child, begging on the street for even a morsel of food; many of them had even lost limbs. You do not realise that Jamaica is a third world country until you get there and see it for yourself. The media clouds you with the truly beautiful landscapes of the island, but it is not covered with beauty; it is only a glimpse at what the rich outsiders can afford and something that normal Jamaican’s would never be able to afford.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, during my three months there, I managed to travel around the island and see some of those beauties for myself. The people in Jamaica are generally happy, they love their country and love to show it to anyone who cares. My sister and I met a couple of Germans and, even though we went there to get to know the locals, it was easier to have some familiarity around, for every time we walked the streets we would hear a chorus of:
“Ay! Light-skinned gal!”
“Ay! Red Jacket!”
being screamed at us from all sides. The last of the refrains would change in accordance to what you were wearing; they would shout generic phrases at you that could be aimed at someone else around, but when you wouldn’t acknowledge them, they would shout out the clothing that you were wearing and that’s when you knew that they were talking/shouting at you. They weren’t malicious, they were curious, but I guess I have such a complex that it was hard to take in the beginning. Meeting the Germans and having men around us, made it easier to socialise with Jamaican’s and that is when our stay turned magical.
In this article, I want to touch on the main attractions of the Island that I encountered in my stay in Jamaica.
The beaches on the southern coast of Jamaica aren’t as beautiful as the northern coast, but there was one beach that I did frequent near Kingston and it was beautiful. It was called Hellshire, it was the place to get fish; freshly cooked fish daily with an abundance of sides, from festivals (a Jamaican dumpling) to cups of fish soup – I found an eye in one of my cups of soup, I ate it anyway.
Montego Bay’s beaches were also stunning, there was this private beach called ‘Doctor’s Cave’ that my sister and I frequented whenever we were there and it cost a little to get in but we weren’t bombarded by people trying to sell us random stuff and we were left alone to enjoy the views and the glorious weather. We also went to this Americanised bar called ‘Margaritaville’ in Montego Bay, and there was a slide that led right to the sea.
There wasn’t much difference in the Jamaican people in both places, I guess in Kingston the poverty and harsh realities of the third world country was in your face the entire time, whereas in Montego Bay, the visitors are advised not to leave their resorts. There was a main strip of shops right on the sea front, each selling a variety of souvenirs for the visitors to buy and there was small wonder why the holiday makers didn’t leave their resorts or the strip much as there was security patrolling it; they were everywhere. Once you ventured a block inland from the main strip, the real Jamaican atmosphere took over, instead of the elegantly coiffed Americans you saw the real Jamaica, so close to the affluence of the all inclusive hotels and the expensive bars and restaurants, you see the native people of Jamaica living in poverty with desperation in their eyes, doing all they can to stay alive but, ultimately, happy.
It was the same in both cities, in Jamaica there was an abundance of ‘street food’ available, all at affordable prices. You would find jerk chicken, all kinds of soup, patties, more chicken – it was just chicken and soup – and it was amazing. The flavours that erupted in your mouth made you want more even as you were eating. There wouldn’t be a specific place that I would recommend because the street food vendors would move frequently, but the one thing I do miss about Jamaica is the food.
Spending most of my time in Kingston and also having family there to guide us on our way, we had the opportunity to sample the nightlife of the island. My cousin took us to ‘up-market’ bars in Kingston, a lovely rooftop bar and a bar called ‘The Pub’, they were a bit pretentious. I remember asking my cousin if we could talk to people and make some friends and she said that we couldn’t; no one makes new friends in Jamaica, they have their friends that they made during their school years and maybe during University but anyone that they do not know they will not approach because you never know who they were. Needless to say, once we met the Germans we were more comfortable with speaking to the Jamaicans.
I guess the only difference between the two cities is that Kingston has a huge reggae ‘scene’, we found many weekly reggae events that we went to with the Germans and it was an excellent way to get to know Jamaica. Montego Bay had one big ‘club’ called “Pier One” but it was tacky, Montego Bay had nothing on Kingston in terms of nightlife, it was teeming with foreigners and drunkards, whereas Kingston was filled with locals and good vibes.
I use the term shopping loosely, it was just a rag-taggle of buildings selling things, or street vendors shouting at you to buy their wares; it is nothing at all like anything that I have seen. There would be ‘shopping malls’ but they weren’t appealing, there weren’t groups of friends milling around and having fun, there were people who came to the malls for a specific thing and they were on their way again; I guess in Jamaica, if you were seen milling around, you were either up to no good or a target for theft which is sad.
The goods – whether is was food, clothes, alcohol – was expensive. Since their independence, America has taken away their sources of good and are selling it back to them at three times the price, so you get an impoverished nation earning a pittance but then having to spend half of their meager wages on food and the other half on rent, they don’t have anything for themselves which makes it harder to get out of there.
Jamaica was an eye opening experience but I do not regret it, the friends that I made and places that I visited were truly inspiring. If you are looking to go there, please do not be put off by my negativity – I do not mean to be negative about this island at all – but know that I have gained a lot from there. I now know what my family have been through and how lucky I was to be brought up in England. My family in Jamaica were all doctors or had high paying jobs so my cousins had all the opportunities at their fingertips, but I saw the people who had nothing and I related more to them than to my family.
Jamaica is truly a wonderful island but I know where most readers will want to go after reading this, but it means that the special people will go to Kingston and find a place there that they never thought they would find, and meet people who are so kind-hearted it makes you sick to your stomach at all the privileges that has been thrown at you; but it will be worth it.
Thank you for reading.