Many thanks to those of you returning here for a second read, your response to the first blog meant that for once it was the Assassin who was blown away!! But joking aside, the life of an assassin can be a tough one sometimes, and until recently it had been some years since I’d been on any kind of holiday even locally in England where I reside, let alone to any country where they were familiar with the concept of sunshine. Therefore when I finally married Mrs Assassin last year, after seven blissful years of contract killing together, we determined that we would take 2 weeks somewhere no-one could reach us that allowed us both our ideal honeymoon. We decided on Jamaica and since we married during their hurricane season – doh! – we got Christmas and New Year over with, then in mid-January we headed off – my beautiful wife hit the poolside loungers, long cold cocktails and paperbacks in the sun followed by elegant dinners and beach parties by night, but indulged the cultural predator in her husband by allowing him to pack his hunting rifle and head off into the depths to seek out new music, odd locals and strange sights, and highly over-proof local alcohol.
Now I’m not your average British tourist, who is an animal that prefers to travel in packs, preferably not too far from home so they can avoid those countries who are uneducated enough not to be speaking English yet, and prioritise their holiday locations according to important factors such as frequency of bars within staggering distance, the probability of an easy bunk-up or some casual violence with a local, or the presence of a Karaoke Bar. No, the Assassin in me feels that if you’re travelling abroad, there’d better be a target in sight. So I went prepared to soak up some local culture and seek out the ‘real’ Jamaica behind the shiny plastic tourist facade of Bob Marley posters, ganja smoking and sandy beaches. And was surprised by what I found waiting for me…….
Xaymayca – Land of Wood and Slaughter.
This blog is not going to be a ‘here’s my holiday’ type blog, although I may well do one of those later because we did have THE most amazing time and there are many many stories to accompany our time there!! Also, I’m not going to delve too deeply into Jamaican history, although it is very interesting and there’s a wealth of information online about it – you could start here if you want to know more. One fact I will share with you, however, is that the South American natives who originally colonised Jamaica named it in their language Xaymayca, which translates as “Land of Wood and Water”, a reference to the stunning beauty of the country’s rainforests and crystal blue seas.
Now due to our seperate work schedules at home, (I’m often still at work when she’s turning in for the night), I’m used to a shorter night’s sleep than my wife. So while we were away I would often have a couple of hours or so before I crashed for the night, and I spent this time wandering around the hotel late at night chatting to some of the locals who man the bars and kitchens (my natural environment!), trying to engage them in conversation about their views on local quality of life, as well as making excellent use of the hotel room cable tv to watch the local tv station TVJ for local ‘unedited for tourists’ news and local features. And what I discovered was a far cry from the carefully marketed face of Jamaica.
Thanks to one really friendly barman who at one in the morning at an isolated poolside bar kept looking over his shoulder as we chatted as though the Jamaican Secret Police might drag him off for talking to a tourist, and a much more open tour guide one day whilst up in the mountains, (Thank you, Kadian), I began to realise that I knew little about the reality of life there despite my attempts at research before I left.
Mi Wan Y’am – I’m hungry
The first thing you need to realise about Jamaica is how widespread poverty is over there. It may not be harrowing refugee camp poverty, but it’s there none the less, and affects an enormous number of the population. Unemployment runs at about 60% in Jamaica, and those lucky enough to have jobs often work for comparatively poor wages anyway. Here’s an example – in England our national minimum wage is £5.93 per hour, based on a 40 hour working week. So your average joe flipping burgers at McDonalds or waiting tables pulls in £238.60. Based on today’s exchange rate that would give you $33,734.22 Jamaican a week for what we’d consider to be a pretty menial, low end job. Pretty rubbish, right??
The Jamaican minimum wage for a 40hr week is $4500.
Now in fairness to the Jamiacan people, begging and street hustling is pretty non-existent – the locals I spoke to hinted that they were too proud to stoop to such levels – but suddenly the vast number of people respectfully stopping to ask if my wife would like her hair braided, or would the ‘Big Man’ like to see some local bamboo carvings for sale, was thrown into new perspective. These were not street hustlers trying to make a fast buck ripping off tourists, they were desperately trying to make ends meet the best way they could whilst maintaining their self-respect . I began to develop a new respect.
Soon we began to venture further from our hotel on excursions into the heart of Jamaica, and the differences began to be apparent when you were clued up as to what to look for. The coastal regions of Jamaica tend to be flat and lined with tropical beaches, and therefore also lined with fat, sunburnt tourists like a lobster catwalk parade. But as you move inland the scenery takes you climbing rapidly into the mountains and a never-ending vista of deep lush valleys, precariously tight steep roads, unexpected plantations and brightly painted houses scattered around the hillsides.
But it’s not as picture postcard as it sounds – much of the housing is knocked together out of whatever materials are to hand, and the bright paint is often the cosmetics used to decorate the ugly face of people ‘making do’ on a pretty basic level – no running water or electricity like we’re used to, generators and strings of lightbulbs cast deep shadows over buildings at night and the local water is often collected from a ‘catchment’ or concrete reservoir on a hillside that funnels rainwater into a collection point that serves the local village.
Schooling in Jamaica is an issue as well, with the majority of kids attending for half the time they do here in England due to the fact that the number of schools and teachers available (or not) mean most schools operate a ‘2 shift’ system, with one set of kids going to school in the morning, and another only in the afternoons. The facilities follow the same trend as the housing too, with smart concrete schools and playgrounds in the larger towns and tourist areas, but get off the beaten track a little and everything becomes very provincial very quickly…
Hospitals too suffer from mass overcrowding – my guide in the mountains told me if you went to hospital at 6am you were in with a really good chance of seeing a doctor – about 6pm. Private doctors cost half a weeks wages (if you have a wage) per visit, so health care cosists largely of local herbal medicine , and no not that kind of herb. In this hidden struggle to survive harsh living conditions, and faced with abject poverty and the very real threat of starvation, unsurprisingly crime has also been a major factor in Jamaican society.
I shot the Sheriff – but only because he drew first…..
The photo above is typical of the view your average tourist takes home of the Jamaican police force – they’re not very welcoming but not very intrusive either, and always smartly dressed and polite. Ideal tourist material in fact, posing for photos and encouraging people to “visit us again soon!”. But the reality is that my barman informed me the police operate a very strict regime in some areas, whilst are genuinely afraid to go into others, leading to a very localised level of crime prevention. Corruption in politics and police officers is high, and most police carry guns and will use them first if they feel threatened, then ask who you are. Kingston in particular lives up to its reputation as somewhere you don’t want to be walking around at night if you’re Jamaican let alone a white tourist – the picture below of a police conducting a raid in Kingston in broad daylight will give you an idea of how safe the police feel there compared to the regular guys above….
Many Jamicans will at some point or another run foul of the local police for one thing or another, and my local sorces told me that the smart approach in these cases is to never argue AT ALL, keep your head down and your tone respectful, and if necessary even if innocent take a night’s stay at the ‘Blue Hotel’. (All Jamaican police stations are painted blue for easy identification). Those unwise enough to argue with the law in some areas face harsh retribution. A local case being investigated recently was over the suspension of 3 officers after photographs came to light of them first viciously beating, then shooting, a suspect who resisted arrest.
Political issues bring high tension with them as well, with it being quite common at election time for violence to break out between the supporters of the two main parties and murders not unheard of, often necessitating the involvement of the Army to keep warring parties seperated. Public anger is high over the perceived level of corruption in the government and its over-reliance on investment in the tourist industry rather than improving the quality of life for Jamaicans, as well as a myriad of social and welfare concerns.
Don’t Worry, About a Thing…….
There is no point to my story, no moral I’m trying to push down your throat or philosophy I’m trying to impart to you here – but the fact that the reality of life on Jamaica lay so openly alongside the tourist facade of white tropical beaches and cocktails (often seperated by literally nothing than a chain-link fence) fascinated me. Don’t get me wrong, my time in Jamaica was completely worry-free, everyone was happy and helpful and I’d go back there today and be happy to stay for a very long time indeed. But having considered myself fairly well educated on what to expect I was caught by surprise by the reality of the situation. So hopefully I’ve provoked a little thought amongst those of you lucky enough to travel far from home about how sometimes behind the mask of the country you saw in the brochures, there’s a whole different story waiting to be told. It may be good, it may be bad, it may well be ugly too, but it’s always worth knowing about.
And I’ve decided while writing this that at some point I’ll come back to Jamaica in my blogging, and tell you all some of those stories of the time Mrs Assassin and I stayed there, because as dark and harsh as the reality of day to day life in Jamaica can be, it was also the most vibrant and ‘alive’ place I’ve been to, with uplifting stories and people as well as photographs of amazing places that I need share with you too, to show its not all doom and gloom. So if you ARE going abroad somewhere soon, hit the Internet and do some research, and then talk to people when you get there – as Agent Mulder would have said, “The Truth is out there……”