I have been to Jamaica twice. Both times at all-inclusive resorts; first in Negril, now in Falmouth which is near Montego Bay. While we were told to not leave the resort because the crime rate is high (Jamaica has one of, if not the highest, in the Caribbean), I don't like generic vacations where you don't get to meet the locals. We had such an opportunity to connect with the locals by simply taking time to chat with vendors - both at the resort and on the public beach.
This was probably the best part of the vacation (excluding the warm climate and wonderfully clear turquoise waters). While I would not return to the resort, I would return to visit any of the people we connected with.
The public beach near Trelawny is filled with what first appears to be ramshackle shacks with graffiti, so many that I began calling it the mall on the beach. (In actuality, it is not graffiti you are looking at but the names and/or # of the shop painted on the buildings with apparently whatever they could find.) (One building had a wall made out of plastic soda and water bottles. Someone else had a sign that read, "The more you smile, the less you pay.") I admired the creativity of the vendors in using whatever they can find to decorate --- it was certainly more than first met the eye.
Yes, vendors call out to you to see their wares --- which we did -- and some of the products (and vendors) were better than others. Still, whether we bought anything or not, everyone would say, "Thank you for looking. Thank you for the respect."
After visiting this area a few times, it became apparent that these vendors have a very small window of opportunity to make a living. It also became apparent that being shown consideration meant almost as much to them as buying a souvenir. It was in these moments we chatted longer with the vendors and gained a better understanding of them as a person and Jamaica as a country.
We had lobster on the beach at two different vendors --- one who had been to America and honed his marketing skills (Leon), and another (Moses) who was gracious, humble (and a better cook). While seeking a hand-made drum that met carry-on specifications and had great sound, one vendor (Lisa) brought one for us the next day from Ocho Rios, and another (Roc) had a friend make one for us. We appreciated their entrepreneurial skills. These people are not about welfare but in being creative to make a living any way they can. There were beautiful carvings (Brian and others), paintings (Leroy), basket weavings (Rose), and hand-made jewelry. Some offered to take us on excursions deep sea fishing or in to the mountains (Ray).
Another man (Winton, Rainbow Man) played his drum for us and sang a beautiful poem that he called rap (nothing like the angry American rap you would hear in the U.S.). When telling the vendors how much we love Jamaican music, they took the time to educate us on the various types of Reggae (Dance Hall, Old School, Lovers, Cultural, etc., etc.) and of course we brought home much music which we continue to love and play today.
I was surprised that the local Jamaicans share many of the same concerns we have in America. An older Rastafarian expressed his concerns about the new music of younger generations being filled with anger and entrenched in drug use, yet also spoke proudly that all of his children were good children and many were in college. An older vendor, whose mother had taught her the beautiful art of basket weaving, was teaching her daughter the same trade but was concerned that their markets are being flooded with products "made in China" which was having a detrimental effect on their hand-made goods. Sound familiar?
I also had 3 separate people ask if I could give them any food. I could not turn down anyone who is hungry and felt a complete disparity between the high rise resorts that are taking up their land vs the difficult times locals face every day.
Living simply in difficult lives amidst crime and lack of opportunity, these Jamaicans kept sight of their values for family, home and health. My heart felt for them but I was also impressed with their work ethic, determination and will. I have travelled to other places where the vendors were very aggressive and annoying. These people were distinctly different and I would welcome another visit or conversation with them. If you want to experience the culture, please do take the time to connect with these locals and show them some respect.
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