2537. First Impressions of Jamaica

Montego Bay Travel Blog

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As the Traveler looks around at the people around the crowded square in Montego Bay, he asks himself: "Where are the tourists?"

On the plane ride over, at least 75% of the passengers were tourists. But once he got out of the airport and into Montego Bay itself, all the tourists disappeared, spirited off to the all inclusive resorts along the beach. Apparently, everybody wants to visit "Jamaica", Jamaica the Resort, Jamaica the Place Where You just Relax on a Guarded Beach while being served a Cocktail... but not the real Jamaica. They want to visit the bubbles that have been created, artificial mini-worlds, where they don't have to have any real interaction with the people who live here. Apparently no one wants to come and wander the streets of Montego Bay proper.

"They don't know what they're missing,"s thinks the Traveler. Just a few minutes ago was a tropical downpour. Now, the streets immediately went back to the energetic cacophony that he can only define as "The Caribbean". No... it's not African, not European, not Latin American... its mix of all of the above.

The Traveler hops around trying to see the puddles in the dim lights. Thanks to British tradition, most of the shops close at 5 pm... and that's when everybody else gets a chance to come out and sell their wares. The Traveler glances about trying to figure out what people are selling, hard to see with little light. He hears a whistling sound. It's a boy on a bicycle with a big pot of something, with a stove under it, whistling and blowing steam.

"White mon! Come try a sausage!" He hears someone calling him.

He knows he stands out like a sore thumb. But no one seems to mind or see him as a target... only a potential customer. He feels quite very much at ease. While traveling through Latin and North America he could "blend in" and seem like one of the locals. Here, it's very obvious that he's an outsider. But that's OK. This is Jamaica.

On the other side, a group of people are singing and playing a keyboard, blaring the music through an amplifier. It's an impromptu open air church service. No one seems to mind. This is Jamaica. People just don't like to complain much here, he later learns. They just roll with things.

Finally the Traveler finds some food that looks like it will hit the spot. Curry vegetables with vegetables... topped off with a bread pudding as dessert. It's put into the ubiquitous styrofoam container, and he takes it back to the hostel where he is staying.

.. and ancient stone building overlooking the old British cemetery.

"Welcome to the Caribbean" he tells himself. After traveling though 7 Latin American countries that, felt like a bit more of the same... it's exciting to suddenly find yourself in a place that is different. Very different.

Time to get to bed. Tomorrow the adventure will begin in earnest.

There are three main ways to learn about a place and its people. One, you walk around and observe. Two, you listen to the people who live there and what they have to say. Three, you study what others have written about this place, people who have studied it more in depth. Hopefully during his time here the Traveler will be able to do all three.

He gets up and gazes out the window to soak in this view once more.

Below is the busy street, just a stones throw from the city's commercial center. Beyond is a cemetery, with just a handful of large tombs... with a waterstained Anglican church behind it, a lasting reminder of how this country came into being. Behind that are tall palm trees... and the lush jungle mountains of Jamaica.

Walking the streets, past vendors selling pre-cut fresh fruit, folks going to their jobs, kids in uniform heading to school... and a cluster of ragged looking fellows waiting outside a rescue mission for the homeless, he does a quick mental review of this country's history.

Jamaica, like all of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, was profoundly affected by the arrival of Europeans, who came, destroyed and remade this hemisphere to their liking. But just by looking at the people around you can clearly see that the end result was very different here than what happened in present day Canada, US, Mexico or Central America.

In the United States, Europeans came over in such large numbers, and the destruction of native cultures was so complete, that nowadays people typically classify Americans as "white people" by default. Europeans basically steamrolled over the pre-Colombian civilizations and rebuilt the country to their liking, basically turning it into an extension of Europe.

In Mexico and other Latin American countries, European and native cultures collided and fused together into a new culture and ethnicity. Most people have both European and Amerindian ancestry. However, it doesn't take long and you start to see that people of more European blood are well established at the higher end of the social and economic hierarchy, and those of more indigenous blood continue to suffer discrimination and oppression more than 500 years after Columbus's arrival.

But here in Jamaica—and all throughout the Caribbean, you quickly notice that the people here are neither descendants of the invaders or the invaded. They are almost all descendants of Africans. Africans who were brought here by the British against their will, to work as slaves on the British plantations.

But nowadays you will have a hard time any white British anywhere that stayed over from colonial times. This country is now run, it seems, by the descendants of slaves who have managed to take control of their own destinies. The president is of African descent... as are the ministers... the magistrates, governors and the police. It is their country now.

This is quite refreshing to see, especially after all those years in Latin America, getting the feeling that so many people are stuck in this vicious cycle of oppressed and oppressor that just has gone on and on, century after century.

Here in the Caribbean you get the feeling that, yes, things can change. People who were once weak can rise up and take over the reins of power...

Or can they? The Traveler suspects that things here might not be as simple as they appear on the surface.

He walks the streets, pausing for a delicious Jamaican breakfast: peanut porridge, sold on the street. With no where to sit, he continues walking, sipping on his new favorite breakfast.

He gets to talking with a local fellow. "I've been to the US several times" he tells the Traveler. "I just went shopping there last week. Things like electronics are so expensive here. Many people go shopping in Florida. I used to work there, but now I've moved back"

The Traveler is quite taken aback by this.

The man doesn't appear to be well to do... he is just a taxi driver. Why would he choose to come back to live in Jamaica when he could live in the US?

"so do you like living there better or here?" he asks the man.

"Oh, the US is nice in some ways. Yes, you can make money there, but I like the quality of life here better. Here, you feel you can enjoy life. There, you just work".

This is a conversation the Traveler will have over and over on this island. People who lived, or had the opportunity to live in the US, and chose to come back and live in their country. He is definitely intrigued to find out why. Generally he's found that immigration from poorer countries to the US is a one way street. People go there, get settled in... and only go to their country to visit.

They become Americans.

He's also intrigued by the high prices here in Jamaica. He wonders if maybe it's because Jamaica doesn't have people that are well connected with strong business skills—like Chinese and South Asians, that have the skills and connections to bring in cheap goods from China and elsewhere so they can sell them at competitive prices...

Spoke too soon. He steps into a "haberdashery" (which is more of a variety store), in search of an umbrella...

"Oh, there they are!" he mumbles in amusement. The employees are black Jamaicans, but the owner, sitting at the register is Chinese. He goes to the next large shop... same thing... It turns out, there area Chinese and South Asians here in Jamaica. You just won't see them while you're walking on the street.

They're inside the shops, doing business and making money.

He notices that, smaller shops are run by Jamaicans of African descent. Most of the larger shops are run by Chinese or South Asians. Chinese and South Asians have a competitive advantage: they have the language and the connections to get their products imported straight from their native countries. And they're well known for working with each other. The Traveler wonders if this makes it very difficult for a non-Asian Jamaican entrepreneur to compete with them. How do the local people feel about this?

Back at the guesthouse he gets to talking with an older man and his niece, as they play backgammon (he finds out that it is her, not him who runs the hostel). They are bi-racial, and explain that this is not always an easy thing.

"Sometimes people will call me 'Indian' or 'Chinese', implying that I don't really belong.

Other call me 'boss' as a way of implying that I must think I'm superior. There is a bit of tension sometimes."

He tells about how sometimes some of they guys with mental issues that hang around the rescue mission next door might get a bit threatening, but if you talk to them firmly, they back off.

"Would they harm me?" the Traveler asks.

"No... they won't mess with a foreigner". The man points to the Traveler's white skin "that's your passport".

The girl explains a bit more how complicated discrimination can be here. "I know of a child who the grandmother hardly talks to because he's 'too dark'. There can be discrimination even in the family."

It seems that some of the mindsets from plantation days still carry over to the modern day.

Later he talks with a fellow who looks black, but his father is Chinese. "When I go to the bank, people treat me normally, but then they see that my last name is 'Chen', they suddenly start treating me with much more respect."

The Traveler asks how people feel about life here in Jamaica.

"Some people feel like all these new resorts being built is really just a new sort of colonialism. The money that's being made is taken out of the country—it's not being used to make the country better. Plus—they cause a lot of pollution. They pump their sewage out into the ocean... that's killing some of our coral reefs."

And the Chinese businesses? "When the Chinese are offered a contract to build something here, they bring their own workers, rather than hiring local people. I've watched them though—they're not really hard workers like people think. They just know how to look like they're working hard whenever their supervisor is watching"

Yet despite the cynicism and frustrations they both feel about their country, they both say they rather live here than in the US. Both of them had the opportunity to stay and work in the US, and both chose to come back here.

The Traveler gazes out the window again. A bus full of tourist has arrived to visit the Anglican church. But there's a fence around it to insure that the tourists have no interaction with the local population. They're driven in, they take pictures, then driven out again, back to their resort.

The Traveler heads out to the streets again, following a winding road through the neighborhoods of hilly Montego Bay, past "Temptation Alley"... a street lined with ladies selling candies and treats to kids heading to school. He watches fathers sporting a full Rastafarian headgear, bringing their children to school...

Later he learns that in true Rastafarianism, the weight of raising the children is put on the fathers. How much of that is actually practiced is unclear—although he does see quite a few signs that fathers are involved in their children's lives.

He continues through the large handcraft market, where people wait for folks from the cruise ship to be bussed in, hoping to sell them some handcrafts.

He's still fully enjoying the bustle and energy of this place. But now that he's learned a bit more of what's going on under the surface, he knows things aren't as idyllic as they seem. He heads up along the coast, out of town, along the touristy strip. Here, you start to see tourists. Most of the beaches are fenced off and only hotel guests can use them. Finally the Traveler finds a small stretch of public beach, and and enjoys a refreshing swim in the (seemingly) clear waters.

When he heads out, a taxi driver strikes up a conversation, "where are you from? Pennsylvania? I used to live in New Jersey!"

Did everyone here "use to live" in the US?!

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Montego Bay
photo by: vagabond07