There is a lot of talk – in travel circles, in expat circles, in people who deal with tourist and expat circles – about seeing “the real Jamaica,” and it always rankles me. The experiences that people have in the tourist zones may be artificially designed to maximize both enjoyment and spending, but they are still actual experiences people have. They are a particular and scrubbed reality, but still a reality.
There is also the ‘real Jamaica’ of the people I saw in the mountains washing their clothes on rocks in the river, bathing together in groups of women and children or young men and boys. It seems picturesque until you remember this is not a performance for our benefit – the river is where the water is. During the drought of this past summer, I wonder how those families survived. They must have paid, at great expense, to have water delivered – water that they then would have had to carefully ration. That is a very real Jamaica, if there is a sliding scale of reality.
The experience of Mack, the tour guide I spend a day with in Port Antonio, is a real Jamaican experience, as was my time with him. He has lived in that region all of his life, and while he chooses to provide for his family by touring visitors about, that doesn’t make him less a real Jamaican than the sugar cane farmers in the plains, or the government agriculture manager who is struggling to expand Jamaican agriculture in the wake of the drought. The fishermen’s Jamaica is as real as that of the new lawyers I saw yesterday morning celebrating in the courtyard of the High Court after being called to the bar. The gala Monday night, the church service I attended on Sunday, my colleague’s wedding … these are some of the many many ‘real’ Jamaicas.
That said, as much as I argue that any experience in Jamaica is an expression of a ‘real Jamaica,’ there are moments and days when little things make me feel more truly here. Things like noticing that one of the craft vendors I walk past every morning has progressed from calling me “Whitey” to “Nice Lady” to “Little Sister.” That’s the benefit of smiling and saying hi, of asking how his day was, of hoping he can stay out of the rain. Things like beginning to understand when a honk means “I’ll wait for you to cross” vs. when it means “Get out of my way!” Things like laughing with the people on the bus while our driver gets route instructions from a school girl.
This morning I had some errands to run before I came to the office, and so I was out of my routine, took a different bus route, and ended up just around the corner from where I normally get off the bus. Instead of heading straight back to the road I know, I took my time passing the street vendors on Parade, took a busier street one over from my usual, and enjoyed the mayhem and the opportunity. I was actually looking for a sewing kit, which I know I’ve seen on some vendor’s table (what’s available on the street varies every day, but right now there’s a whole bunch of everything), but was also curious to see what I could see.
To fuel my wandering I bought a juicy thick slice of watermelon for my lunch, which the vendor nicely sliced into three thinner pieces to make eating it easier. Just JA$50 – that’s 50 cents Canadian – for juicy sweet fresh watermelon, a smile, and a nice interaction. His hand cart was loaded down with the giant seeded kind of watermelons we don’t see in Canada anymore. Business is good – I had to wait while a businessman bought his slice, and the vendor didn’t flinch when I only had a JA$1,000 to pay with – he had plenty of bills to make change.
I finally bought replacement sandals for the ones I have now re-glued 4 times. I tried to haggle – I really did, but only got the vendor down 25%, even when I kept pointing out they were only vinyl. He said they are good vinyl. Ha. When I said I was going to throw out my old sandals, he said “no, no, those are good leather. Keep re-gluing them. You have 6 or 7 more months left in them.” In the end, I paid JA$1200. Maybe a little more than I want to pay for vinyl sandals, but they are damn cute, fit much better than my now stretched leather ones do, and he knew he had me as soon as I tried them on.
Down the block and done my business at the General Post Office, I came back to my usual corner. To the lady who laughs at and benefits from my love of coconut and peanut drops. She is also my bammy connection, though today she only had big ones. So she waves a neighbour over, brokers wee bammy for me, and off I go. Bammy is my favourite starch here, and I have it often with supper or with eggs on the weekend. I got a dozen little discs for JA$300, and that will keep me in bammy for most of 2 weeks. I might not be back downtown for a few days, so I also buy both a peanut drop and a coconut drop – essentially they are very nut heavy brittles of a sort. Not quite as hard as a brittle, but still just sugar, spice and LOADS of nuts. And only JA$50 each. Why would I pay JA$162 for a chocolate bar when I can have a fresh nut drop? I’ve occasionally bought them while they are still warm – heaven!
Finally, I at last bought a jelly coconut from the vendor in front of the office. Having loved the one I tried in Port Antonio, I know they are a great source of refreshment, and far more hydrating than water. I will have to ask him if I can take a video of the process, but essentially he hacks the top off a coconut with his machete, pours out the water into a plastic bag the customer is holding, hacks a scoop off the side of the coconut shell, then cuts the coconut in 2 or 4 pieces and scrapes the jelly (young coconut meat) into the bag with the water. Squeeze the bag shut and pop a straw through the top, and you have yourself a pretty good snack for JA$120.
And all of this life happened in a two block stroll from the bus stop to my office.
I know that my experience of Jamaica is a moderated one – that my colour, my privilege, and the structures surrounding me in my placement here are providing me with a particularly tempered view, but still. Walking through Parade, haggling with the sandal man, making my bammy and nut drop dealer smile, and getting a lesson in how to buy and eat a jelly coconut – these are the moments I am fully in Jamaica.