Your Experience in Jamaica Can Depend on How You Choose to Take It

My brother Bill and his wife Faye, who live in London, Ontario, are spending a couple of weeks in Jamaica this month. They’re staying at a hotel in Ocho Rios, and they are renting a car and driving across the island to look up relatives. Bill left for Canada 50 years ago, and married a girl from Nova Scotia. They are frequent visitors to Jamaica but they haven’t been back for a few years. I wonder what changes they’ll notice.

Judging from the newspapers, they might be risking their lives. I’ve been reading about a soaring crime rate and lack of discipline among the country’s 2 million-plus residents. According to a recent Observer article, for example, “a lack of law and order” is costing Jamaica hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. The article reports that more than 300 returning residents have been murdered since 2000. This has scared away a lot of Jamaicans who have lived abroad and wish to return home, and has prompted many returning Jamaicans to pack up and leave. The article quotes some of these people as saying they would rather endure the cold than be raped or killed in Jamaica.

Returning Jamaicans have more to complain about than the lack of personal safety. Some say island residents “scammed” them out of their life’s savings. And others cite the “soon-come” attitude afflicting much of the island’s population.

None of this is new to me. A cousin and her husband, who “went home” to Jamaica, are back in Miami. They complained about having to live in a walled community with armed guards, about the lack of freedom to move about as they would like, and the nonchalant attitude displayed by service personnel. They said they would be promised that someone would come to fix something and the appointment was rarely kept.

The last time I lived in Jamaica, which was 30 years ago, there were frequent power outages and other utility breakdowns. And newcomers to the Jamaican lifestyle were driven to distraction by the prevailing lack of punctuality. I recall hearing about a Canadian woman who got so frustrated she threw herself into the road and rolled all the way down the hill at Mona.

There was also lot of violent crime. Standing in line to get my driver’s license, I overheard conversations about robberies and saw people showing each other their bullet wounds.

One night a gunman climbed into my car as I stopped at a red light in the middle of Halfway Tree and scared me witless. He kept pointing the gun at my head and threatening to kill me, but my Guardian Angel must have intervened because he relented, kicked me out of the car, and drove away. The wrecked car was recovered days later, its trunk loaded with ganja. And the gunman, who turned out to be an escaped prisoner, was shot to death by police.

The way I remember it, Jamaica has never been a “safe” place to live. I suppose it’s only natural that when so many people have no way to make a living and no hope of a decent future that some of them will resort to violent crime. When my father was overseer of a property in Portland, he was never without his revolver. He carried it in a shoulder holster during the day and slept with it under his pillow at night. His vigilance was our security.

Of course, Jamaica is not unique in this regard. I would much prefer to take my chances in Port Antonio than in Chicago, for example.

And it is not true that the majority of Jamaicans are undisciplined. You have only to see the neatly uniformed schoolchildren trooping home from school to realize that the island is home to many strict parents. And, while I am sure there are “scammers’ in Jamaica – as there are in England, Canada, America or anywhere else – most of my fellow-Jamaicans are scrupulously honest.

They are also generous and friendly. They’ll smile and call you “my love” as you walk by. In my experience hostile incidents are rare. And when ugliness erupts you can often deflect trouble if you have a sense of humor.

As for that famous “no-problem” attitude, it can be irritating or disarming – depending on how you choose to take it. Go with the flow and you’ll get along just great; kick against the pricks and you’re in for a wretched experience.

Knowing my brother and his wife, I am not worried for them. They are armed with the best protection you can take to Jamaica – a friendly attitude. They won’t be going there to find fault or to tell people how much better they do everything in Canada. They ‘ll be going there to enjoy the wonderful beaches and majestic mountains, to admire the spectacular sunsets and share the laid-back island lifestyle.

Now, if only they remember to drive on the left-hand side of the road.