June 16, 2009

Traveling To Negril Or Just Going Home

The feeling was always there to explore my origins. I lived in America but I was not American, as a matter of fact I came to America in the most peculiar way. A sister of my mother on a visit to Jamaica saw me and decided to take me to America—“opportunity” was the reason. They said I could get in the United States what was not available in Jamaica.

We flew American Airlines and I arrived in New York August 1977 with much anticipation. I remember the golden wings that the pilot gave me as I exited the plane, at the time it had no significant meaning they were just wings a souvenir for flying American. I can remember the luggage carousel, the drive home from the airport and being fascinated with the bright lights, tall buildings, crossing the Whitestone Bridge into the Bronx everything seemed spectacular.

I didn’t realize what I was giving up yet but it started to slip away the moment I walked in the door to my new residence. America was not all shiny and pretty. I wanted to go back home but it was very far away.  It was often used as a punishment or threat, “if you don’t behave I’m going to send you back to Jamaica", and from what was described I knew I didn’t want to go there. My own memories of Jamaica and happiness began to fade and thoughts of poverty, ugliness, and crime replaced them, it became a place I feared. It sounded dreadful, people with no shoes, living in huts.  I became ashamed. Not only did I not want to go there but I didn’t want to be from there.

Well turns out I didn’t belong in America at all, I had entered the country illegally and after being in US for ten years I was forced to return to Jamaica in order to become legitimate. I was terrified because of all the things I heard, but having no choice I braced myself for the trip. First there was no fancy modern airport and for the drive to our destination we rode in a 1960's minivan. It was a treacherous ride through the mountains of Kingston to Gordon Town. At times I thought we were going to go fall over the side as there was no railing and the bus was driven by an obvious race car driver. 

All I saw was black people and I honestly don’t think I had ever seen that many in one place before. It seemed like everyone we came in contact with knew that we were coming from “foreign”. I stayed in a tiny room with two siblings, my mother, and a baby for an entire month. We barely got along but it was one of the best months of my life. The fear that I had about being in Jamaica melted away as the island dirt cushioned my feet the food filled my stomach. I felt the grove as I listened to Steele Pulse and Tiger. I took a trip to Negril Beach which allowed me to travel across the island. I marveled in the splendor of seven mile beach it was the first time I ever saw blue water, Negril left a lasting impression. It was official…Jamaica stole my heart, I was captivated by the natural beauty and I was in love as I fell for both the island and her people…it was on that trip that I realized Jamaica was my country. My spirit was massaged by the island vibes…I felt loved here, I felt confident here, I felt real here….I knew this was truly home. 

Ever since that trip I have had the urge to return to the island and reconnect. Although life took me on many twist and turns the yearning for Jamaica was always there. It would be twenty one years before I returned to the island of Jamaica and the hills of Kingston, and while I had loved it, there was something about Negril that I longed for. Well last month I finally made it to Negril twenty three years after I first laid eyes on its crystal blue waters. 

In 2007 I went to Jamaica, and had a full tour of the island. I stayed in Manitoba and traveled from there all the way to Kingston. I passed all the towns I had only heard of from family members, Bogwalk, Spanish town, Falmouth, we traveled through it witnessing all the entire island had to offer. There was the old lady sweeping her steps, the one room house, and the smell of jerk permeating the air. It was Jamaica and it was for real. That trip was a brief one and it only served to wet my appetite. When I boarded the plane back to New York, I knew I would have to return and soon. Although I loved the people of Montego Bay I didn’t love the beach, there was no crystal water and hardly any sand because it was a man made beach…whatever feeling I had for the island Montego Bay did not quench only left me wanting more. Because of the excitement of the 2008 election I wasn’t able to go back to the island, but once Obama got elected and I witnessed his swearing in it was time to fulfill another dream and return to Negril.

Even though I only stayed for a few weeks in Negril, it was some of the most enlightening weeks of my life. It started with the airport I was so excited to be going to Negril that when I was ready to board my transport from the airport I noticed that I had left a piece of my luggage sitting at the customs desk, yes it was still there when I walked back ten minutes later to retrieve it…it sat right where I left it. The drive from Montego Bay airport to Negril was a very scenic one, the blue ocean to my right and the green mountains to the left. There were mansions and shacks, stores that were concrete buildings and some that was obviously nailed together by the owners. The horses, goats, and cows lingered in the fields and on the side of the road. School girls and boys ran home in their colorful uniforms. There were bikers, and racing motorist and it was all mixed with talking and laughter. Jamaica was alive and vibrant, as I watched them watch the bus drive by I got the feeling they knew we were from foreign, but they didn’t really care. Although I saw no street lights and very little road signs everyone knew exactly where they were going.  Negril was filled with resorts with colorful signs and roadside eateries, it was hardly the Negril of twenty years ago but what I cherished about Negril was still there….the beautiful beach. 

The first day I laid on the beach I felt like raw meat thrown into the middle of a pack of wolves, everyone was tearing at me. The hustlers whose prices always seemed to change, and gigolos whose charm many found irresistible, even the guests were pandering..each recommending their guide to take you to the hills, or the baths, or even back to the airport. Everyone wanted to know did I want to parasail, or Jet Ski, or take a boat ride to the caves. Did you go to the falls, or to Ricks and watch the sunset and the jumpers off the cliffs they all asked. I only wanted to do one thing…sit on the beach worshiping the sun and giving Triton his dues.

But I was fresh meat and would not be left untouched everyone wanted a piece and stopped by to give their greetings and show their wares. I had to admit I fell for some of them. There was the fruit lady who sold me a coconut for four dollars, I thought that was pricey in a place where coconuts grew, and she also brought me a rotten jack fruit and tried to convince me that it was good. There was the charter who tried to charge me ten US dollars to go from the beach to Ricks, and the sixty dollar boat ride to the cliffs. I often thought that because I was a person of color many of the hustlers saw that as a weakness. Sand flies got the best of me attacking from day one and not relenting, I almost shortened my trip because of them but I would not give them the victory.

Everyday the tropical sun kissed me good morning and I enjoyed the newness of another day. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I was at home. My hotel was not a five star not even a three star. It was more like a one star, but I feel I got five star treatment. The staff there was very accommodating and if I were staying on the beach I wouldn’t stay anywhere else. The hotel was only a ten minute walk from town and is easy to get a taxi from there, every other car stopped to ask if I needed a ride as I took the walk to the Hi-Lo to fill up on supplies. There was love for Obama everywhere.

The sunset was magnificent and I could feel myself baking as it pierced the sky. I ate most of my meals on the beach and it was nice to have meals with the moonlight. There were cozy little eateries dotting the road on the beach as well as the cliffs. Jamaica’s infamous crop was plentiful, what could easily sell for about a hundred in the US went for about eight US dollars in Jamaica. Not saying that I bought any but it was hard not to indulge because it was everywhere…on the beach, at the clubs, on the streets, and everyone is more than willing to share, it was the Caribbean and in Jamaica “every ting irie”. I partied at the Jungle, Alfreds, and of course there was “Rocky Wednesdays” at On the Rocks and if you want it raw you should visit Beach Park Jam usually on Sundays or Hilltop on a Saturdays. This is to say there was plenty to do if you are looking for entertainment.

The most intriguing thing about Negril was the Jamaican boyfriend phenomenon. When I arrived at the hotel in Negril late Tuesday evening I was immediately approached and propositioned. I spent most of the trip trying to convince people that I did not need a Jamaican boyfriend but everyone had a Jamaican girlfriend or boyfriend. I have never seen so many interracial couples in my life. I was disturbed at first. I knew many of these white people that I saw with Jamaican boyfriends and girlfriends—particularly the Americans—I know these people would never speak to a black person much less date a black person back in the states. I know that some of these people may even use racial slurs when talking about black people, especially the right wing Republican with his Jamaican girlfriend—he was in his late forties, she was in her early twenties. It took everything for me not to jump in the conversation when I heard him trashing Obama. 

Everyone got some of the Jamaican charm, from slim women, to men and women of traditional build or stout, to those who were more voluptuous. “Its hard to resist their charm” one young girl said as she talked about her Jamaican boyfriend, much to her mothers dismay, she was not at all thrilled that her daughter from “Tennessee” had fallen for a six foot five Jamaican. My own daughter who swore off men before the trip approached me one day wearing a necklace telling me she took it from some guy to make sure she saw him again. But the men were perfect gentlemen, even the ones that came off rough and tough in the beginning. Even though I told them I had a boyfriend back in the states that didn’t matter, they insist I needed one in Jamaica. For women who are having trouble finding a man here I do suggest you go there. Many women have found love and married their Jamaican partners. Some have chosen to live on the island while other foreigners bring the partners back to their own countries. Jamaicans seem to have accepted this dynamic and it as much a part of the culture of Negril as jerk chicken and reggae music. Negril sees it as just a part of the tourist trade and if it helps people return to the island then so be it, not sure I agree. You don’t have to get a Jamaican boyfriend or you can have a couple of them. Either way you will definitely meet some good people and if you decide can make some lasting friendships.

My reason for going back to Jamaica and my need to get reconnected to the island was not deterred by this side show happening with the tourist community, and while I didn’t take a Jamaican boyfriend I met some of the most amazing people. Some living on the island and some living abroad or back in the states, some who are friends and I have the honor of calling family. We all had one thing in common, a love for the culture which included the delicious food, the music and friendly people as well as an appreciation for the natural landscape including the blue water. This was my home and it welcomed me like a lost daughter, I started to think about all that I had missed growing up in the states. The great thing is that I can return at anytime.

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