Jamaican Me Crazy!
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Your first, and possibly only, contact with Jamaican “locals” may be in an all-inclusive resort on the sunny shores of this beautiful island.
You may go home believing that the Jamaican people you dealt with are the happiest people on earth. I know that I did. Their smiles were broad and they warmly addressed me as “Miss” or “Honey.” They worked very hard to make my stay amazing. It was that relaxing joy that first drew me in.
Within the confines of a large resort, one usually finds an air of cheer among the employees. The maids are heard singing while they work. The servers are smiling and poking fun at each other as they deliver your meals. The excursion staff genuinely couldn’t be more animated and jovial. You find yourself feeling as if you’ve truly arrived in utopia. Is it possible that they are really this jubilant?
Vacationing in a corporate owned resort in Negril upon my first arrival in Jamaica, I recall commenting to a groundskeeper about the beauty of the flowers he was weeding. He proudly stood up and motioned to the colorful scene. The man said, “I am the one who created all of this! Do you like it?” A worker couldn’t have beamed more brightly if he had shown me a photo of his family. I expressed my admiration. It became apparent that many employees truly took pride in these occupations.
Every Jamaican I came in contact with on that initial trip to Jamaica impressed me with their love of life and pride in their country.
They emphatically expressed how much they loved living in “paradise.” From my narrow window of knowledge, who wouldn’t love it? They went out every day enjoying sunshine, fresh air, and meeting interesting people from all over the world. Seemed like paradise to me.
Knowing what I know now, and living among them, I realize they portrayed a rather stilted view of their lives. Anyone catering to tourists would desire exactly that. The harsh realities of their daily existence were carefully glossed over to prevent any discomfort a visitor might feel if they were to hear of their struggles.
Don’t get me wrong, even after all of this time, I still believe that most Jamaicans ARE, in fact, cheerful, friendly people.
But now I appreciate it even more because I understand a few of the challenges they face. If there was ever a single lesson I would take away from Jamaica, it would be one of remaining hopeful, even when the odds seem stacked against you.
As upbeat and easy as life in Jamaica may seem, I’ve been compiling a little list of things that totally don’t fit into my “happy Jamaican” paradigm. It’s not that they are huge things, nor are they deal breakers for me. I would say that they are the things that make life here interesting and rather curious. Okay, I’ll admit, some of them do become a bit tiresome at times. Honestly, I’m certain that my own demeanor and habits get on their nerves, too.
Even though most polite tourists won’t mention it, one of the first things they often notice upon arrival is what I affectionately call “the Jamaican stare.”
I’ve never seen people who so unabashedly look you up and down or peer right into your eyes. It feels like a staring contest at times. You wonder who will look away first, but they always win. It might be easier if they smiled but a stern expression occupies their face the entire time. I’m not certain if it’s just taboo in America to keep eye contact for too long with strangers, or a psychological one, but it takes getting used to.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get from visitors is about the incessant car horns honking. Seriously, I don’t think Jamaicans can drive without one.
They toot to let you know they have arrived, are waiting out front or as a way of saying “goodbye” as they drive away. Courteous drivers blow the horn to warn pedestrians that they are passing. Then there is the “hello” beep-beep for those they know and anyone else they want to greet. I’ll admit to nearly jumping out of my skin on a number of occasions as that blast went off just behind me.
Even without the honking horns, stay for more than a day or two, and you will begin to wonder if the majority of Jamaicans are hard of hearing.
They LOVE loud, LOUD music. Everyone seems to think they should run a disco, even from the confines of their cars. At times, I’ve wondered if my heart was going to start skipping beats thanks to the bass pounding through my chest in taxi cabs, concerts and bars. Brings a whole new meaning to “I’ve got rhythm.”
If they aren’t hard of hearing today, just give it time and they will be. It’s no wonder that so many of them can be heard telling a story or laughing from blocks away. It’s hard to modulate your voice if your hearing is going bad. Ha ha. A bit hard of hearing myself, I fit right in.
I’d hate to inadvertently convince you to never leave the regulated confines of your all-inclusive resort. You would really miss out on getting know an amazing group of people. I must, however, mention the snail-like pace of most business and lack of customer service in general out in the local scene. This will be especially obvious in contrast to the resort experience.
Although the drivers drive fast, the rest of society, outside of the urban areas, runs pretty slowly and in a somewhat odd fashion by most standards.
Over the last year or so, I’ve done a lot of shopping for building materials, craft projects, food items and household necessities. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I’ve done a lot of searching. Often, finding even the simplest item becomes an all-out quest.
For example, take those little racks we use to cool cookies on. Short of driving three hours to Kingston, I’m convinced there isn’t one to be had. I’ve looked and looked. Not one to be found. Real leather shoes, brown sugar and certain bedding items have eluded me as well. Often, if I can find items, they are of such poor quality that I can’t bring myself to buy them.
The small town shops often focus only on very specific items. For instance, you might purchase a toilet in one shop but have to get the bolts to fasten it to the floor in a totally different one. I find myself setting aside entire days for these excursions because any project may require many, many stops to find supplies. I rarely complete my list in that single day either. You can read more about those kinds of experiences here.
While searching, I’m always shocked when I query an employee or shop owner about whether or not they stock an item and get a flat, “No.”
There is rarely an alternative product mentioned nor any further discussion. Just, “No” and then they walk away or go back to their cell phones. I used to stand there with my mouth hanging open but now I just leave. God forbid I continue to look around because they will follow me with suspicion. It seems they’re thinking, “She asked for clothes pins. I told her we don’t have any. Why is she still looking?”
The slow pace of business quite literally hits me where it hurts the most when it comes to dining out. With few exceptions, I have started “pre-eating” before I “go out” to eat in restaurants here.
At times, I wonder if they had to go buy an egg, hatch it out, grow it up and slaughter it for my chicken dinner. Gee whiz. I’ll be ready to chew my own lips off by the time my food arrives if I don’t pre-eat. No wonder I always pack on the pounds down here!
Thankfully, things move more rapidly in what they refer to as “cook shops.” These tiny, family run kitchens are found on nearly every street in every town. Sometimes a building and sometimes virtual shacks, they dot the landscape just like the plethora of tiny bars.
The cook shop is a Jamaican staple. If I have an option, I’ll choose them over the larger restaurants any day. The food is usually prepared slowly for hours by some people who really know how to cook. You do have to arrive early because when the food runs out, they lock the doors.
I think that the most potentially upsetting aspect of Jamaican culture for many foreigners is the cat-calling that men do towards women.
Now, depending on your perspective, this could be seen as an irritant or an encouragement. If you have the negative view of your own body as a woman, you might enjoy hearing “Hey, beautiful!” or “Hello, you sexy thing!” If you don’t, it might insult you. Either way, you really just have to learn to roll with it.
Just as the men in other cultures might offer to buy you a drink (USA) or pat your rump as you pass by (Italy), Jamaican men are very vocal about what they see. It doesn’t matter if you are half-naked or fully covered, chances are good that one of them will let you know that they see you. I’ve heard every line in the book from “Ooo baby, you are so fine,” to “Sweetie, I love your chubby little belly. It’s so sexy.” Yep. Flew home and went right on a diet after that last one.
Like everything else in life, most things that happen in Jamaica all circle back around to your own attitude.
Years ago, I would have sped up while walking past Jamaican men to avoid what I perceived as “those creeps.” Today, I smile and thank them for their admiration as I saunter by. I plan ahead to wait for my dinner when eating out or I stay home. Learning to wave back to everyone who honks as they drive by, whether I know them or not, has changed my perspective. I’ve also perfected my own stare!! I bet I could go eye-to-eye with the best of them. Like the old adage goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.