Jamaica: Notes On an Island

_MG_0550 by you.Our recent trip to Jamaica was all about relaxation, reconnection and surface beauty…but we did manage to learn a few valuable things about the Caribbean’s third largest isle.

The people we met in Jamaica, who comprise the third happiest nation on Earth, were eager to share their history and culture.  However, with commercial, packaged tourism the island’s main industry and violence, poverty and substance abuse the people’s triple-threat reputation, it’s generally hard to get close enough to Jamaica to know how it really feels. Often as not, tourists experience the island via a guide’s well-worn script, on a moving vehicle, or both.

But logistically speaking, it’s not so easy to get around by yourselves.  

  1. Jamaica is surprisingly large for an island, with distances between major points measured in hours rather than miles.  
  2. Aside from the one major roadway that rings that island, roads and side streets can be unreliably paved and marked, washed out, or privy to pell-mell goats/chicken/dogs/human beings.  
  3. Thanks to British occupation from 1655-1962, Jamaicans drive on the left side of the road…in a unique speed combination of Snail Crawl and Nearly Suicidal.  
  4. Car and scooter rentals to left-side newbies are actively discouraged by many travel books, articles, guides, locals…and hospital staff.  
  5. Hiring a driver for two people for the express purpose of touring the island for its own sake can run upwards of $200 US a day.  Haggling, though, can help bring down a price.  
  6. Public buses do run almost all over Jamaica, but they can be over-crowded, exceedingly warm, and run on erratic schedules. But, um, at least the two of you will get to spend some time with each other.
Jamaica is divided into 14 parishes, almost all with British or Spanish names. This seems absurdly colonial in a country that’s been independently governed for almost 50 years and where black islanders vastly outnumber whites, but as usual…no one asked us what we think.  
St. Ann, the island’s largest parish, is still revered (and tour-packaged) as the home of Bob Marley. These days, the parish of Trelawny is famous as home to both the 2008 Olympics’ fastest man (Usain Bolt) and woman (Veronica Campbell-Brown).  

An unfinished building is a common sight. As with many Third World countries, Jamaican homeowners build or make improvements only when they have cash in hand. Jamaican banks presently charge 13% on loans, and much of the population does seasonal/freelance work; in this context, it’s a lot easier to grasp the sheer number of homes with half-built foundations, rooms and roofs. 

Beaches may be what the tourists come for, but savvy Jamaican homeowners stick to the lush, green hillsides.  In a place where hurricanes routinely destroy the coast (the season officially lasts from June to November, its peak in August and September), beachfront property is almost exclusively held by resorts, tourist condo developers…and very, very poor people.

Most people native to Jamaica can’t swim. Swimming pools are a product of post-colonial wealth, exclusive to mansions and hotels; anyone who can’t afford one has to make do with the lukewarm, clear Caribbean Sea and dozens of natural springs. But here’s the thing:  if a Jamaican mother were to toss her infant into the wild waters of the island, not only would she be useless in an emergency, it’s very likely that her friends and neighbors would cry child endangerment. And so, that cycle rarely turns.

Strip mining is big (and often dangerous) business here. From the early 1950s to the late 1980s, Jamaica was the world’s largest exporter of bauxite, an aluminum ore; a small handful of profitable facilities still exist on the island. Miners are paid handsomely compared to most locals, but tourism is usually a safer path to earn a living. The chemicals released in mining, however, can cause miners to lose some cognitive abilities or even their sense of taste. In the past 20 years, conservationists have struggled to halt bauxite mining in Cockpit Country, a biologically diverse area in the northwestern interior; here, several lakes run an ominous bright red from aluminum run-off.  

Over 3,000 plant species grow in this tropical paradise. Our favorite is the Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia), possibly the most spectacular tree we’ve yet seen. Originally native to Madagascar, it grows all over Jamaica and the Caribbean, blooming a brilliant red-orange from May to September (see Adam’s photo above). Big into gardens, we were happy to find a Forrest Gump-worthy litany of ferns and palms (“Coconut palms…date palms…dwarf palms…”), tons of orchids, and a produce market’s worth of fruit trees.

To really taste Jamaica, try its fruit. The Jamaican apple (or otaheite) is a ruby-skinned, white-fleshed cross between an apple and a pear. Mangoes here have a long season, about 20 different pet names, and a Jamaican history that dates back to West African slave ships of the 1700s. The indigenous ackee fruit, when ripe, is cooked with codfish in one of the island’s most typical dishes; in fact, fruits and fish, both cheap and plentiful, are often combined in Jamaican cuisine.  

Seek out a beach party. If you’re looking to meet Jamaican people away from a resort or tourist attraction (and you can score a ride), ask the folks at the front desk where to find that night’s best beach party. Held on public beaches, parties begin around 11pm and go ’til the next morning, featuring live local music, oil drum or sand pit barbecues, beer, rum, and (word is) truly epic dance-offs.  Nice.


  1. Thanks for this post! My husband and I are going to Jamaica for winter break this year, and I am excited to try out some of your suggestions! Now to read your other Jamaica posts…


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