There's a hardcover, glossy-paged and full colour book called Destination Jamaica in my hotel room. It's the "official visitor magazine of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association", and its pages are jammed with photos of mostly white people having the time of their lives. Between advertising for designer watches, jewellery, restaurants and resorts, there's plenty of tourist recommendations for honeymooners and cruise shippers, families and weekend get-me-awayers. Most of the action centres on the north coast of the island - the resorts around Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios - with a healthy section reserved for the capital of Kingston. I've spent a week in Jamaica, surrounded by the warm blue waters of the Caribbean, and as I turn the pages of this book, it feels like I've visited another country altogether. Reflecting on Rasta villages in the Blue Mountains, dancehall parties in the streets, or the community that embraced me outside Mandeville, I am trying to force the genuine circle of my experience into the airbrushed square of this promo book. Everybody comes to Jamaica, but it appears there's more to Jamaica than what everybody sees.
"Eve-rie-bo-die is in the ceme-te-ry, mon, we say eve-rie-won," declares Noah, his grey dreadlocks framing his face, creased with smiling. Well, everyone, it seems, knows of Jamaica, population 2.7 million, as an island resort holiday destination. Blessed with tropical beaches and hallowed natural beauty, Columbus discovered it in 1494 and famously said, "Yeah Mon!" Actually, he said something about this being the most beautiful land he'd seen, but I'm going to steer clear of traditional tourist propaganda. "Yeah mon," has entered my vocabulary, and I doubt it will ever truly leave. It can be said enthusiastically, and it can whispered sadly. Would you like another tasty chicken patty? - Yeah Mon! Were the Spanish responsible for the murder of every single last indigenous islander, the people known as the Arawaks? - Yeah mon. Did Jamaica win gold medals at the Olympics for the world's fastest men and women in the 100m sprint? - Yeah Mon! Did centuries of English and Spanish slaving burn tragedy into this island, scarring its descendants with the hard lashes of history? - Yeah mon. Nevertheless, for a small country forever at war with its unfortunate origins, the people of Jamaica have created their own distinct culture - language, food and music that have spread around the world. So we think Jamaica and we think Bob Marley, a prophet of peace and a musical genius. We think of Jerk, the sweet, spicy marinade that has become a staple of Caribbean cuisine. We think of words like "irie", or "a little sumthin sumthin". Jamaican patois may be a colourful and creative stew of English, Spanish, slang and street, but the laugh that follows almost every sentence can be universally understood.
This is not the time or place for a Gonzo history lesson, although Jamaica's past does need some reflection. After the conquering Spanish found no gold, the island remained a trading post, until war between English, French and Spanish Armadas led to the rise of the buccaneers, the infamous pirates of the Caribbean. Sanctioned by various governments, ruthless men with loyalty to hire like Blackbeard or Henry Morgan pillaged for profit, based out of Port Royal. It's fun to think of swashbucklers and lusty wenches, but this was "the wickedest place in Christendom", a dog eat salty dog world, where murder, robbery, betrayal and disease, ran through the veins of a population of human effluence, opportunists, and backstabbers. As if on cue, an earthquake sunk this Sodom and a third of its population in 1692, and the town of Kingston was established in its wake. New masters of Europe, the English conquerors found a lush and fertile land ready to be harvested, and the import of slaves began. By the 17th and 18th centuries, there were three times as many slaves as white population, human cargo brutally imported from the Niger and West Africa, treated worse than dogs, put to work in lucrative coffee, and sugar plantations. One in three perished under atrocious conditions, replaced, raped, hung, whipped, and subjugated in a time where concepts of enlightenment, freedom, liberty, and equality were being debated in the royal parlours of Europe. Today, Jamaica's population, like many other islands in the region, are the descendants of these slaves, and while the rest of the world can only imagine the injustice, you can still taste it in the air, even in the food; jerk cooking was invented by runaway slaves to preserve their meat on hunts.
Nowadays there are understandable calls for reparations from Britain, which grew its wealthy empire on the scarred backs of its former Jamaican slaves. Yet, much like India and Sri Lanka, British influence can be found everywhere, from the national sport of cricket, education and parliamentary systems, to the influx of English tourists. The irony today is that the descendents of slaves serve the descendents of masters in luxury resorts, restaurants and bars. Anyway, the moral repugnance of slavery was finally abolished by local parliament in 1834, and two centuries of political turbulence, massacres and the violence of a power being transferred from former master to former slave later, Jamaica was able to finally gain independence in 1962. A flag of black, green and yellow flies all over the country, for these are a proud people, forever removed from their indigenous roots, forever bruised by the nightmare of their origins (be they slave, master or merchant), but determined to move forward as one people.
With my one shot to visit Jamaica, I'm keen to leave the resorts behind and, given my limited time, search out the other side of the island. If I were on holiday or better yet a honeymoon, you'd have to clutch the pina colada from my sunburned fingers, but I'm here to discover a country and the people who live inside it. Without any single activity or destination, finding my story would take a bit of travel, a bit of hunting, and a bit of luck.
Continue reading Robin's report at http://www.moderngonzo.com/reports/jamaica.html
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