How to Get What You Need in Jamaica
For people who don’t already live on an island, screensaver-esque images of our impossibly clear blue water, white sand beaches, and palm trees are a pretty common daydream. Particularly for those sitting in a cold dreary office during the seriously grey winter months or for those trapped in a concrete jungle during sweltering summer days with the nearest beach probably a full five-hour plane ride away. They dream of running away and living on an island, maybe even retiring here to live out the rest of their days. In this daydream, life is simple and easy – all they imagine needing is a hammock and a fresh coconut topped off with a little rum.
Bikini? Check. Floppy hat? Check. Flip Flops? Check. All set?
Ummm … nope.
The fact of the matter is, life rolls on, even on an island. And life requires… THINGS.
We all need medication, car parts, that one cable the e-book reader requires, and, of course, let’s not forget staples like face cream and other personal care products that you’ve had in your life for as long as you can remember. It isn’t that some of these things can’t be found on an island, it’s often just not quite what you’re hoping for. For example, of course there is hydrocortisone cream (after all, lots of allergens and things that bite and sting exist here too), however, will it be that wonderfully affordable generic one you could always grab off the shelf in the USA or Canada? No. Will it be the one with the perfect percentage of medication that you KNOW works? Maybe not.
To be clear, there is always the trial and error part where you may find the perfect substitute on a rock, sometimes one even better than the one you liked so much from your pre-island life, but in the end, you still long for some things that you cannot find on island. It’s simply a fact of life here.
Jamaica, as a largely English-speaking island and a major shipping hub, brings in a lot of items including recognized brands, electronics from Japan and the USA, clothing, and medications from China as well as junk food and toiletries from South America. Walk into the pharmacy and you’ll spot American Neutrogena facial products beside the British Simple brand, Dial body wash beside L’Oreal and Garnier shampoos, Doritos next to Oreo cookies. Be prepared, however, to pay a little more than you would normally for these types of things. After all, these are all imported goods, and Customs and taxes need to be taken into account as well as the fact that the business people selling them need to earn a profit too.
Also, be prepared that not every item in the line may be represented. (I am still mourning the Nivea shampoo I fell in love with while living in Spain that I can’t seem to find anywhere else!). Worse yet, every now and then the one distributor who brings the item in may have had some delay in their shipment and this, of course, means not one item in stores anywhere across the entire island! I have had this particular headache several times from trying to get the sunscreen I know works to, most recently, a medication I wanted for my dog. (Don’t worry, he’s fine, it’s just the one I wanted would have eliminated the arduous task of a topical application. He has very sharp teeth.)
I do suggest giving some of the local products a shot and conducting your own experiments. Believe it or not, there may end up being some things that you will end up missing whenever you’re off-island!
So what to do if you just can’t do without your signature perfume, the one deodorant that you KNOW works for you, or the part for your top-of-the-line fishing rod? There are several options for islanders needing to get things on a rock:
1. The island’s postal service
First is the most obvious: the postal system. I can’t speak for other islands, but the Jamaican postal system is pretty reliable and you can send and receive packages as long as they adhere to the Customs and regulatory guidelines of both countries you’re shipping between. Just like with travel, strange powders, liquids, foods, and other items may be restricted. This is actually true of almost any methodology when you think about it, as anything entering or leaving the island is subject to Customs and searches. This is both for security as well as agricultural and health safety concerns. It’s all for our own good, so just embrace it wholeheartedly. In fact, that attitude is the best thing to bring to island living when dealing with anything at all! To ensure you can keep tabs on the packages and to also speed up the process, it’s best to pay a little extra and send packages as registered mail. If friends or family feel sorry for you and you wish to abuse that guilt to get them to send you care packages, this is a helpful tip to make sure you get your goodies quickly!
2. An island shipping service
The Post Office has recently jumped on another island bandwagon: special businesses dedicated completely to getting stuff shipped in for you! In Jamaica, there are several companies now who, as we say in Jamaica, decided to “follow fashion” like the game-changing company MailPac (though they still remain the top choice for most islanders). MailPac has offices in several locations across the island, and now several other companies do as well. Choice always makes life a little easier. What these companies offer is pretty ingenious. They have offices in Miami with a general address and each client is given a postal box number. You then can jump online and order your item(s) and put in your delivery address as this P.O. Box number. The items are then shown as delivered by the international company and then the package company takes over from there, flying them to the island where clients can then head into the office to pay a small fee when they pick them up. This fee is usually determined by the size and weight.
Whereas Amazon accepts Jamaican credit cards (I’m sure they make a pretty penny from this island’s shopaholics), many other foreign websites won’t, so, to facilitate the retail therapy needs of Jamaicans and those who have chosen to call the island home, MailPac also has an additional site where you paste in the link of whatever it is you wish to buy and then you essentially purchase the item through their gateway, allowing you to buy from any site. They’ll even pay for it for you and you pay them in installments, just as you might on your own credit card. Basically, they ensure they’ve covered every base to have you feeding your online shopping addiction no matter what.
You can pre-check Customs fees and everything else before you head to pick up your packages and yes, they’ll even help you return items overseas. You learn certain tricks and loopholes along the way, such as not ordering too much at once as you bypass Customs fees by keeping your purchases below USD$50, but I’ll keep the rest secret so as you learn them you can feel proud of yourself for these milestone epiphanies. Also, as I don’t run the business, if I got something wrong in the details, don’t shoot me, just give them a call and get yourself sorted. I personally have accounts with three of these companies. As I said, loopholes!
3. The “higgler” / vendor community
For the more adventurous, the “higgler” or vendor community is also a great place to tap into more commercial goods from bedding, clothing, and shoes to cool toys. Stalls can be found at major bus terminals and high traffic areas along the roads by major shopping centres. This is more for those who wish to browse, as there is no guarantee of what you may find. The same goes for the island’s “big box stores.” Although they’re bound to have major brands and you can even get a warranty on electronics purchased here, you won’t have the same choices in say bedsheet colour as you may have at somewhere like Asda, IKEA, or Walmart. Again, for every item, you’ll have to do cost comparisons. Some things prove more cost-effective to buy online and ship in, while others work out to be the same, less expensive, or more expensive.
4. Vacation mules
There is also, of course, the tried and true ageless method: get someone to be your mule. I mean, personal courier. People will send out Whatsapp blasts or just call around to ask, “Anyone going to Miami/Atlanta/London/Toronto anytime in the next 2 weeks?” This request works for all versions whether you’re asking someone to take something up that’s too expensive to post, or begging them to buy something for you that you just can’t live without. Or – the full kit and caboodle – you send them up with a suitcase of things, a list, and money to buy things to refill that same suitcase with on the return leg. Most people will say yes at one point, simply because they themselves are aware that they may be the one saying, “Do ah beg yu” (please, I’m begging you) one day in the near future.
And of course, if you’re the one traveling, maybe think about taking an extra bag and stocking up on goodies for your return. For every place I go, I have a specific list of at least five things I can’t live without. For example, from the UK, I usually raid Boots and always buy a ton of Anthisan anti-itch cream as they’ve stopped shipping it to Jamaica. The US is all about generic pharmacy items and Trader Joes goodies, while Barbados for me means yummy pepper sauce. Luckily, I have a few people connected to that island who love me enough that I now no longer even need to ask, they just show up with a bottle every time! So yes, having friends who love you is probably the best asset you can have to keeping yourself supplied!
Most islands have pretty healthy expat communities, made even easier by social media sites like Facebook which facilitate groups of strangers communicating on an ongoing basis. From a ready-made set of people who may be traveling back and forth to your former home, to helpful tips or pooling together to bring things in, and even selling to each other when people leave the island. This can be a great asset for those looking for ideas on how to get things from your previous home, or, well, even buying something like a gently used car already conveniently on the island.
Jamaica has a pretty high cost of living but it is probably one of the islands that you may possibly be able to get the best of all worlds. As a fairly central hub for air cargo and shipping, as well as having ties to Europe, the Americas, and China, and a pretty healthy economy and an equally healthy love of shopping, the odds are you may easily be able to get almost everything you need – especially if you tap into the ways mentioned above to shop online and import.
The main thing you will want to stockpile, however, is patience. Every now and then, an item may need to be restocked in stores, or, if you’ve ordered items to the island, be prepared to wait. In Jamaica, there is an infuriating set of phrases for the impatient people (like myself) that we have learned to live with. I am often told to relax, soon come, it should be here by… (but may not be), and of course, no problem, and don’t worry about a thing. Okay, maybe that last one was lifted right from a Bob Marley song, but there is a reason those lyrics are in a song that originated on this island. Getting all wound up and “going postal” won’t make things get here any faster, so do yourself a favor, plan ahead as best you can, stock up on supplies you need, and then put on your bikini, floppy hat, and flip flops and head to the beach. After all, you might as well get your tan on while you wait… in a hammock with a drink in hand of course.