I spent my last weekend in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. This is a popular tourist town in Jamaica and I definitely sensed that when I arrived. Things were sold in U.S. dollars, not Jamaican. The roads were smooth, not rocky. Most of the people were of fairer complection, not dark. There were man made attractions, not natural landmarks. I felt as though the language barrier was weaker because Jamaicans did not bother speaking in Patois. The music sounded Americanized and it was not the authentic reggae and dancehall that I have grown to love. These contrasts remind me of the initial reactions I received when I announced that I would be studying abroad in Jamaica. Friends, family, and colleagues would tell me how lucky I was to be studying in an oasis-like environment. They must have pictured an environment like Ocho Rios. In reality I have been staying in Yallahs, St. Thomas, otherwise known as “the forgotten parish.” Tourists do not come here and the town is very impoverished. When I went to Ocho Rios I may have been behaving like a tourist, but I felt like a Jamaican.
On my second day at Ocho Rios I woke up and went to Dunn’s River Falls. Unlike most tourists, I decided to walk to my destination. Along the way I spoke to a few local Jamaicans. A lot of local residents asked me where I was from, yet I felt more inclined to tell them that I’ve been staying in Yallahs, rather than my actual home. The next question was always, “Oh, are you a missionary?” I explained that I was studying abroad and participating in service learning. Many times I was met with a fist punch followed by, “Respect.” It felt nice to be recognized as a part of the community. I did not want to come off as a tourist.
After I hiked up a 180 feet tall waterfall, I headed over to Mystic Mountain, a tourist attraction. At first they wanted to charge me the visitor charge, but I eventually got the local price by providing proof of my work in Yallahs and Kingston. I rode across Ocho Rios in a chair lift, bobsledded, and zip lined. By the end of the day I was exhausted and asked my friend if we could stop at a jerk stand to grab some food. She reminded me that this was not Yallahs, and that would most likely not be available. Instead, we went to eat at the restaurant that the tourist attraction offered. When I went out to eat, the most popular meal featured was a cheeseburger and fries, not curry goat or jerk chicken. I looked around me and noticed that many of the people did not look like Jamaicans. Even the architecture and layout of the restaurant did not look like a typical Jamaican building. I looked down at my burger and wondered if this was shipped from Miami. Instead of blindly enjoying a meal like any regular person, I turned to my friend and expressed how strange it felt to be a tourist. There was a cognitive dissonance in my head and it sparked a very interesting conversation. There is a popular saying in Jamaica: “Jamaica, no problem.” Many people think of Jamaica as a getaway…Come here to relax, leave your problems at home. I asked my friend to recall the documentary, Life in Debt, that we watched a few weeks ago in class. I told her that our current experience at the restaurant felt a lot like the opening of the film.
The movie begins with the arrival of a group of white vacationers and a voiceover explaining Jamaica’s economic woes. En route to Montego Bay, their frolics at the beach and around the hotel swimming pool will appear throughout the film as an ironic contrast to the economic realities of the “other Jamaica”, a country suffering from a 40 year International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity regime and multinational domination of the traditional self-sustaining, largely agricultural economy. As I began to understand the post-colonial landscape outlined so far, a scene came on that has stayed in my thoughts ever since. Former Prime Minister Michael Manley in a post-independence speech condemned the IMF stating that “the Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we’re not for sale.”
Increased unemployment, sweeping corruption, higher illiteracy, increased violence, prohibitive food costs, dilapidated hospitals, increased disparity between rich and poor characterize only part of the present day economic crisis. Life & Debt is a tribute to the people who defy the odds of survival. It aims to inform audiences in the U.S. of the impact these policies have on our neighbors abroad. So I ask “Jamaica, no problem”…or is there? I, alone, cannot fix the multitude of issues. However, 15 years of Temple University students studying abroad here has certainly left it’s mark.