Beyond the Resort Wall: The "Real" Jamaica
After hours of research choosing my first trip abroad, I heard more than my share of misguided warnings about my leading choice: the tropical island of Jamaica.
"Stay away from the cities."
"It's dangerous there!"
"We never left Montego Bay."
and my personal favorite:
"Which resort are you looking into?!"
The more I heard from people who had never experienced the island beyond its chic perimeter, the more I became determined to listen to the few who had really been there.
Then right on cue, I stumbled upon old poems and diary entries of long-forgotten dreams of being in the tropics. I trusted my gut that Jamaica was the place for me, leaning away from the hearsay that would only reward some cruise line owner with more paper to play with.
My mind was made up, I had to see for myself. I needed to put those rumors to rest, and to feel the heart of the island beyond the resort wall.
As I embarked on my journey, I planned for a certain degree of culture shock, but I never expected to be my own walking stereotype within minutes.
Our hosts picked us up from the airport and swung by a bar on a tucked-back fisherman's beach nearby. By the time I ordered my first Red Stripe on the Caribbean shores, I already knew I was way overdressed. The bartender, patrons, and fishermen were all much more casual, wearing mostly trusty jeans and worn t-shirts.
Back home, I had spent time planning the outfit I would change into at the airport, as the jeans and jacket I wore from Cleveland would have suffocated me anyway. I chose a bright red summer dress covered in tiny white seagulls with a collar and buttons down the front, paired with matching jewelry and flip-flops...
...but I suddenly would have given anything to throw my cute-dress-plans to the sea and relax in something more comfortable.
My face grew warm until I was sure my cheeks were the hue of the dress itself. I realized this was a perfect example of why many Jamaicans think "Americans" are pretentious, and to me, too materialistic. I had unintentionally flaunted eye-catching, delicate fabrics and accessories somewhere casual, which was everywhere, standing out like a big red sore thumb among the island-time locals.
To my relief, although I faced a few endearing chuckles for being new to their way of life, not a single person gave a hint of judgment in their tone or body language. In fact, from the moment we stepped off the plane in Montego Bay, it was beyond important to the locals that we feel welcome and experience the "real" Jamaica.
At home in Cleveland, like most others I know, my first reaction during any unplanned social interaction is to escape as soon as possible, and avoid the stranger who is clearly crazy for striking up a conversation with me.
Among more social folk though, it's easier to give into desire for connection. As long as I was safe, I gave everyone I could an opportunity to make a mark on my life, and it made all the difference.
Once you are willing to spend a few minutes opening your heart to another human being, remarkable-mushy-warm-fuzzy things start to happen.
I experienced hundreds of years of history, infinite measures of music, and vibrant stories built on passionate dreams that I won't ever forget. When you let a stranger open up to you, you suddenly witness an entire complex universe, all bursting from just one tiny human being in one tiny country.
Fishermen preached about the changing times, and saving up to find better opportunities elsewhere. Street and beach vendors shared endless laughter and love, persuading you to take a piece of their spirit home in the form of a polished shell or beaded jewelry. Even our Rasta host took the time to open up about his spirituality, why it's so deeply ingrained in the island's lifestyle, and the raw emotions that can be born from a religion with such an oppressive history.
In the town where I stayed outside of Ocho Rios, the people eat a heavenly amount of ackee fruit, fish, jerk chicken, rice, and other fresh, local produce. The people work hard, fixing rather than replacing broken possessions, caring and living off the land, nurturing their souls with singing and dancing. The girls wear navy blue dresses and the boys wear khaki uniforms to school, and both have impeccable manners.
But like anywhere else, it wasn't all beautiful music and tropical mountains. The beaches of our village were colorful and popular, but they were also sometimes filled with trash leftover from the rains and the resorts. Some locals teach their children to beg tourists (a.k.a. white people) for money, or to buy their trinkets in exchange for a few bucks. Stray dogs and even goats live off the water and garbage in the streets. Some natives live in homes without common luxuries that people like you and I have never questioned living without.
But the point I want to stress here the most is, that despite being warned about the level of poverty and the behaviors it would bring, seeing the country so first-hand urges me to ask...
"What IS poverty really?"
Where I stayed on the island, there was no hot water, selective backup water, no construction to fix the horrifically steep roads, homes that were unfinished or made out of leftover scraps of material, and many of the families lived by selling food or goods on the side of the main road.
But this is just what it looks like there. After just one night, I knew they had so much more wealth to speak of than most "Americans" will ever feel in their lifetime. Their dedication to family, culture, spirituality, and the planet itself naturally far exceeds most back home. They've not only learned to take advantage of this simple, freeing way of life, but to appreciate it without question.
Between the friendly hostel hosts, bar patrons, street vendors, tour guides, and the countless other characters we met throughout the week, every soul on the island was bursting with the love and history of the country.
Jamaica holds a rare and special place in my heart, and I already long to be back there so much that every plane ticket is a toss-up between the island and everywhere else. I know I will go back someday to experience more of the country, but for now I am ready to see many more corners of the earth, to expose the beauty behind the same resorts with the same Mai Tais everywhere.
I learned much more about Jamaica than I could have imagined during my trip, but it still doesn't compare to how much I learned about people in general. We all want the same things: to be heard, to be loved, and to love in return.
It's time to see the real world, and I have the heart and soul of Jamaica to thank for giving me a push toward my true adventurous path.
<3 Happy wanderlusting, happy flight-booking, happy loving
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