Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Jamaica the Tourists Don't See

Note: I'm back. This is a blog post I wrote a few days ago on my laptop computer, but was unable to get Internet access to post it from where I was staying in Jamaica.

As I write this blog post, I am sitting in Jamaica on the front-porch of my mother-in-law’s house, enjoying the beautiful tropical weather. Jamaica is a poor country, and my wife is from one of the poorer parts of it – a small community in the rural countryside, far away from the tourist resorts and beaches that Jamaica is famous for. In this part of Jamaica, I stand out – as a white person, I am such a small minority here, that if I am here for a week and see more than two or three other people with my complexion the entire time I am here, I am shocked. Since I speak passable Jamaican patois, most Jamaicans I meet here quickly realize I am not a tourist, but do not quite know what to make of me.

The people here in this area do not have much: most houses here are small one or two room dwellings. Few people have cars – commuting to work or shopping is by bicycle or taxi. Meals are often cooked in outdoor kitchens over wood fires or on small indoor gas stoves. Laundry is washed by hand in plastic tubs and hung on lines to dry. Few people here have running water in their homes – they must carry containers down the road to a “standpipe” to fetch water for cooking or drinking.

But, people here are happy, and over the years I have been married to my wife, I have grown to love it here. I have often told my wife if I could find a way to earn even half my salary and live in this place, I would.

I remember a few years ago, I was in Jamaica at Rick’s Café, a popular tourist attraction in Negril, and struck up a conversation with a couple of the tourists. Of course, the tourists and I had gotten to Rick’s Café by two very different ways: I had driven my rental car from my wife’s rural community where I was staying, and the tourists had ridden in a shuttle bus from a 5-star resort. I asked them what they thought of Jamaica, and was surprised when they said, “It was nice once we got to the resort, but I hated the drive here. There was just too much poverty. The one thing I really don’t understand is why there are so many unfinished houses here.”

I remember my surprise at the tourists’ answer to my question, and to their disdain of the areas they had seen – the communities they drove through on the way to their resort probably resembled the one I am sitting in now, and I could imagine their surprise if they saw me sitting here. I have often wondered how some of these tourists’ impressions would be changed if they could spend a few nights in one of those poorer communities, possibly the same type of neighborhood some of the workers in their resorts live in, and get to see how different the lifestyle there is.

Of course, there is also an explanation to the unfinished houses. What most visitors to Jamaica don’t realize is that the unfinished houses are the result of Jamaica’s painfully high interest rates, which make home mortgages painfully unaffordable for most Jamaicans, and foolish investments for those few who can afford them. Thus, people pay cash for houses and build them in stages: building one or two rooms at a time until the house is finished. Since Jamaican houses are generally made of steel-reinforced concrete and not wood, this type of construction is possible, and in many cases, it might take a person 10 to 20 years to finish his house, a bit at a time, while he lives in the parts that are finished, but when he is done building the house, he owns it without owing anything to anyone.

What I love about Jamaica (and particularly this small rural community I am in) is the lifestyle. People here take time to enjoy themselves, and do not get so caught up in the minutiae of day-to-day life as we do in America. Jamaicans tend to live for the moment, and life here takes place at a very different pace than it does in America. I find spending a week here feels like spending a month at home. Of course, most tourists never get to experience this type of lifestyle, and while they may spend a fortune trying to emulate it in the resort, the experience falls far short of the reality.