Apologies for the short hiatus, but I was busy with some birthday week food shenanigans in one of my favorite food cities - Chicago! It was a really great time, and I even got to have a good conversation with a renowned female chef. Ask me about it sometime!
Interview with Najwah, a Jamaican Podiatry Resident
A Brief History
Before I get too far into this post, I have to preface my thoughts by saying that I am obviously not an expert in Jamaican history or culture. I am only speaking from the context of my very short stay. However, I do want to share my feelings because I left the country with strong, conflicting emotions. I have never felt that way before when visiting any other country.
First, some brief Jamaican history. While the island was originally inhabited by indigenous Caribbeans, it became a Spanish colony in 1494. African slaves were subsequently brought to the country for labor, a trend which continued after the island was conquered by the British. Slaves primarily worked on sugarcane fields, allowing the British to make money from selling sugar and, yes, rum. In fact, on our Appleton Estate tour, we read about how rum production was ramped up in the 1700s in part because the British soldiers needed a whisky substitute.
So Jamaica was heavily influenced by colonization and the slave trade. Consider the fact that most Jamaicans are dark-skinned because of slavery. I find that a very sobering thought.
Dilemma No. 1: All-Exclusive?
I have mentioned this before, but while we were staying at our all-inclusive hotel I almost forgot I was in Jamaica. The hotel complex was rather generic, American pop music was playing everywhere, and the entertainment options lacked local flair. Apart from a few food options and the hotel staff, I basically could have been in Florida.
I understand why all-inclusive resorts exist. Lots of people want to go somewhere warm on vacation. They also want to be safe, comfortable and surrounded with familiar conveniences. This can make a vacation less stressful. Personally, I disagree with this philosophy.
If you go to a different country and never actually experience anything that the country has to offer, why even go at all? It is the equivalent of going to Paris, staying at a Holiday Inn outside the city, admiring wallpaper of the Eiffel Tower while lounging around the hotel pool, and eating burgers and fries from Five Guys (yes, they have a Parisian branch). Doesn’t that seem like an absurd idea?
The late Anthony Bourdain also struggled with the all-inclusive industry in Jamaica. I highly recommend watching his Parts Unknown episode on the country.
Dilemma No. 2: At Your Service
One night my wife and I were having dinner at a French restaurant. We were sitting in a colonial-style building, surrounded by mostly white clientele. The wait staff were primarily dark-skinned Jamaicans, bringing rum drinks to various tables.
Being from Brunei, I do not have any personal historical connection to the African slave trade. But in that moment, I felt very uncomfortable. Yes, slaves were emancipated by the British hundreds of years ago in Jamaica. Yet I wonder how much has really changed.
Dilemma No. 3: Tourist Mode
The tourist industry is a large part of the Jamaican economy. Approximately 25% of all jobs in Jamaica are in tourism. How did this effect my visit? Well, I felt like I was treated as a tourist everywhere I went. What do I mean by this? A lot of times, I felt people only wanted my money.
At our hotel, staff members consistently came around asking if we were interested in very expensive spa treatments. Additionally, despite the fact that our hotel was an all-inclusive resort, there were always "upgrade” items for purchase at all restaurants. I have never been pitched so much by a hotel before!
When we were at Treasure Beach, we were quoted a price of $40 per person for a boat trip to the Pelican Bar. We passed as we thought $80 was too pricy for a short venture. I later found out that my Jamaican co-resident - who I will be interviewing in the next segment of this series - paid only $15 for four people for the same boat trip! I understand that locals should get a discount, but that $65 seems like a large difference!
Towards the end of our trip, I was filling up the rental car at a gas station. When I went inside to pay, the attendant blatantly asked me if I would pay for her to have a slice of rum cake. I was shocked by the request. I ended up paying for the cake to be nice, but was incredibly uncomfortable with the whole situation.
Listen, I am all for supporting another country’s economy and its people. In Jamaica, the average reported salary is $1,200 a month, which means there is a clear wealth divide between tourists and locals. I understand the economic disparity, but still had a hard time with the way I was treated.
Perhaps my experiences were unique, and not reflective of the “real” Jamaican tourist experience. I have a feeling, however, that this is not the case. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people would rather ignore the potential implications of their vacation choices.
So what did I learn from my trip to Jamaica? I am going to try to avoid all-inclusive resorts from now on, in any country in the world. If I return to Jamaica, I would like to return with a local. And finally, I understood a little more about the vast impact of colonization.
Have you been to Jamaica? Do you have any ethical dilemmas that you experienced? Do you disagree with my thoughts?