Some years back, Jamaica was unknown to me, other than being a ‘pretty’ name in the atlas, a country in the Caribbean that was on my list of ‘someday’ places to visit, based solely on that meager criterion. When the opportunity came to make the trip, I found myself not wanting to know a whole lot about the island before hand……following the typical pattern of my travel style…..I would rather explore as I go, instead of having a long itinerary before hand. I have always found it easy to get the rough layout of a place first, then go back for a second, in depth trip if desired.
I did go to the local public library, and found a well thumbed through, five-year-old travel guide on the country. The focus seemed to be on all-inclusive resorts, and I almost immediately began to doubt my destination choice, but flipped through the book long enough to pick up some general geographical information. What appealed to me were the opposing coastlines. I knew I wanted to see Kingston, the educational and cultural center. I knew I wanted to get up into the mountains, and I wanted the wide sand beaches and turquoise waters of the west coast.
On that first trip, I wound up spending twenty-four hours in Montego Bay, until the urge for the open spaces became overwhelming. An unexpected meeting with someone who worked here long ago netted a ride east to Ocho Rios. Dinner in that town, and I felt the pull toward the west coast so strong I was willing to walk there if needed. Luckily, and unbelievably, the next day brought a ride all the way into Negril, and I immediately felt at home. A week later, I found myself sending a telegram back to the States, with the basic message that I would be home when the money ran out. I did wind up going back a week after that telegram, not that the money was gone, but I knew that I wanted to get back in order to start saving for the return trip. There was still so much to see, and in some way, I knew that this country would be calling me back for more exploration.
Since that first trip, I have made many return visits, each time lucky enough to spend longer amounts of time, investigating each of the areas that first caught my attention, as well as other places. Except for a 10 day stay in a small hotel last summer, I have always stayed in guest houses or with families willing to share a spare bed, if not a whole room. I have long been fascinated in the economic discrepancies of the island, in the people of the countryside, in the seemingly never-ending hope and resiliency bolstered by pride, patience, determination and belief in a new and better day, no matter the circumstances, or lack there of.
This past year has been one that blessed me with time enough to spend a bit less than nine months on the island, with a short stay back in the States midway through, to handle some business affairs.
It was on my last sojourn here that I decided that a future trip would mean forgoing the tourist towns completely, and instead, settle in to a local community for the duration. It seemed to me that it would be the best way to begin discovering the answers to the questions and curiosities I had. It was in this way then, that I came to be here in Little London, a small “suburban” community halfway between Negril and Sav-La-Mar, the capital of the Westmoreland parish.
People who come to Jamaica and drop their travel-agent fed fears of talking and mixing with locals rapidly learn that Jamaicans can be some of the most gracious and sharing people, and sometimes, those with the perceived “least” to share, are the most giving. Close and long enduring friendships are not uncommon, even when it appears that the only thing in common between the parties is the fact that all involved are people of the Earth, with hopes and dreams, the desire to not just be heard but be listened to as well, and to be respected for whom we are, and not just for what we do or do not have.
And it was two trips back that I met the individuals that would ultimately become the host family for this particular long-term stay. It was through them that I have worked out a trade, whereby I live rent-free in a little house in exchange for organizing and running the newly revived family shop, and sharing 50 % of profits generated. As with any business, it is starting slowly, but has so much potential, I can see the possibility of expansion in so many different areas. Naturally, you need money to generate money, and that is where I fit right in with the Jamaicans in the countryside – that one commodity (cash) is what we are all lacking, but it gives me a fairer understanding of some of the issues I have been interested in exploring.
Now, for a few details to give you a visual description (knowing full well of course, that you will probably declare me certifiable for enjoying what I have here, but it’s just one more case of differences being what makes the world go round.) My house is considered to be pretty much hurricane proof, as it is made of “unfinished” (unpainted) concrete, rather than wood. I really do love the wooden houses best, ‘boardhouses’ as they’re called, but this one will do. As far as houses go, it is pretty much close to perfect – one room, about 12 by 15, screenless louvered windows, a side door, a front door, and a zinc (tin) roof, my favorite for being under when it rains – the water beating down on the tin provides music that ranges from a gentle drumming to an impossible-to-talk-over roar, depending on the intensity of the storm. I have discovered that possessions can definitely be kept to a minimum, and what isn’t necessary in that one room, just isn’t needed at all. It is ou! tfitted with the basics – a bed, a shelf of boards, bricks and stone to hold odds and ends, a small fan and a radio. Perhaps the only luxury that I am missing is a mirror. I do have one, but it is smaller than the palm of my hand, and doesn’t do much to give the overall idea of how I’ve managed, IF I’ve managed, to put myself together each day. Most days, I don’t mind, other days, I find that using the reflection caught in a car’s window will do. And then again, there were those days when I stopped in at the beauty shop next door to use the phone, I caught a full length view in Christine’s mirror, and wondered who it was that stared back at me with such startled eyes. My favorite room is my shower – beautifully rustic. It is outside the house, an add on to a cement structure that will be the ‘real’ bathroom someday. A few boards nailed to the trunk of a tall stately thatch palm, some overlapping, rusted pieces of zinc, two bricks to stand on so that the mud stays off t! he clean feet, a curtain made from a feed sack………. When I first got here, I was given a hose to snake over the zinc wall, connected to a water system in the yard that pumped in plenty of clean, cold water. The hose was shared by any number of other people, at various times during the day and night, and lately, I find that I am content to deal with more traditional Jamaican bath preparations…….set my plastic laundry tub on the bricks, trek in 5 or 6 juice pitchers full of water, (the bucket that would haul more never seems to be where it’s supposed to be when I want it – but “no problem” as the popular saying goes….) then, stand in the tub, soap down, and rinse with the final pitcher. It is most beautiful at night, the roof overhead simply the interlocked fronds of the thatch palms, and the black velvet sky, glittering with the most vividly colored stars I have ever seen, in numbers more numerous than I ever imagined. The cold water jolts life back into the skin and I seem to spend long moments just staring skyward.
I’m sure by now, it has been noticed that my house lacks one room everyone considers important but me – the kitchen. I did notice with surprise these last couple of days though, that I am looking forward to my own cooking area, which may be installed, in the next month or so. The typical country kitchen is also outdoors, most often a board lean-to attached to the main building, and is equipped with a cutting table and a propane two burner stove top, and a tall bucket for water, which is used for cooking, and washing dishes. Someone here in ‘the yard’ always cooks the day’s meal, and the portions I am given feeds two, so I am hardly starving. That, plus any snacks or drinks I want for the day are free from the shop so this is probably the first time I will return home with some extra padding, (unless my willpower gets stronger – you know I have to sample every new sweet or salted snack food I decide to carry and have developed an even stronger liking for salted banana chips! and Guinness, if that’s possible.)
As for the shop, it too is probably different from what you imagine……At the moment; it consists of two rooms. The first part is about 10 by 20, wooden in structure, with a refrigerator, a counter top, some small shelves, and a little glass display case under the counter top. A Jamaican style “slot machine” and a portable wooden table for domino games completes that portion. The second portion is what seems to me to be a “huge” room, although it is probably only 15 by 25 feet. Two bamboo walls, (the other is the adjoining shop wall, the fourth side is open and faces the yard) a zinc roof, a badly ruptured, eroded red concrete floor, another wooden table……….and that’s that. The room was originally built as a “Go-Go” club (“exotic dancing” in polite terms), and there has been a lot of public interest in a renewal of the same operation. However, this is not the way the family here has decided to run it, and the planning/brainstorming stage is still in progress. At the mom! ent, morning business is quiet, with a few people stopping in for snacks or cigarettes before they head off to work. The second wave includes school children who drop by after classes for a cold drink, or a sweet treat of some sort. Then, finally, it becomes a neighborhood ‘hang out’ from late afternoon/early evening, sometimes with people here long into the wee hours of morning….three times in the past month, due to rather intense poker and domino games, the last customers didn’t go home until eight or nine the next morning.
I have been asked by family, friends and Jamaicans alike why I chose to live like this this, to spend my time like this, as it is not the ‘typical’ vacation activity, it is not luxurious, and at times, it is not even easy. I suppose part of the reason is because I feel I have moved beyond the “vacation mode”, even though there is still a lot of the country I have yet to see, but plan to, one of these days. The other reason is because I have always been curious about the country – how it can have so much to offer but seem to fall behind rather than forge ahead, how the people survive at the grassroots level, how a positive outlook in the face of hardship is maintained, how doing with less can bring more peace, or if nothing else, place focus on what is really important.
Life is a classroom, full of opportunity for learning, and I am willing, at this stage in my life, to gamble, to take a risk, to enroll in this new course.