Reflections on a Trip Back Home That Almost Was

I could’ve gone to Jamaica last month – for free. But I decided against it. My brother, Bill, has accumulated hundreds of free air miles from credit card expenditures and he offered to use some of those miles on a trip to Jamaica for both of us. It was a chance to revisit the places where we grew up and relive some of the good times that we remember so fondly.

To do that we would have had to rent a car and drive to such remote places as Malvern in St. Elizabeth and Hope Bay in Portland. We would have wanted to visit relatives and friends, former schoolmates and acquaintances all across the island. But from what I’ve been reading in the Gleaner and Observer, I thought it might be dangerous.

We would no doubt have been safe if we had visited the island as vacationers interested only in sunshine, white-sand beaches and manicured golf courses. Sheltered in one of those posh resorts, the grim reality of Jamaican crime would have been shut out. But we weren’t interested in that. There are beaches within 50 miles of my home in Florida and a golf course just up the road. And there is no lack of sunshine. In fact, we are praying for rain after three dry years.

Believe me, I know that Jamaica’s beaches are far more beautiful than Florida’s. And I miss the majestic mountains, shrouded in mist and mystery. I long to hear the lilting Jamaican voices and the rich Jamaican laughter. And the mouth-watering Jamaican dishes remembered from my youth would have been food for my soul. But at 75 years old, I felt that I would be too vulnerable to attack from the outlaws who seem to have taken over much of the island.

When I read of gang members slaughtering women and children, as well as each other, of policemen being gunned down and rampant corruption and crime, I picture an island full of danger. As a child and even as a youth, I wandered freely in the country and the city, even venturing into the worst parts of Kingston when I was a reporter for the Gleaner. But I gather from the news that it would be suicidal for me to do that today.

Still, I have to admit that my fears might be exaggerated. Jamaica remains a popular tourist attraction. In a recent Observer article, the minister of tourism, Edmund Bartlett, reported that the current winter season is the best Jamaica has ever had despite the global financial crisis.

“We are certainly the only country in this region that is showing growth (in tourism),” he said. “The winter season is halfway through, and ….we have welcomed 464,589 visitors …. Last year at this same period we had 453,000 visitors.”

While tourists from the United States are down 4.3 percent (with 83,813 arrivals) and visitors from the UK are down 5.7 percent (with 13,382 arrivals), Canadian tourists increased 37 percent in January. Another reason for the surge in tourism is an influx of college students, apparently shying away from the violence in Mexico, where the government is engaged in all-out war against the drug cartels. And certainly Jamaica’s gang violence is nowhere near Mexico’s with its beheadings and pitched battles.

The minister said many of the island’s visitors are Jamaicans living abroad. And I hear from friends in Jamaica that Jamaicans who emigrated in the fifties and sixties to seek their fortunes in Britain, Canada and the United States are coming home to retire, pushing up real estate prices in places like Port Antonio.

So things might not be so bad in Jamaica after, all. I must confess that I have mixed feelings about the trip that almost was. Perhaps I was overly cautious. Perhaps it would have been the experience of a lifetime. But I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry.