A Love Letter to Jamaica
I lived in Jamaica for about half my life, but I can’t say I ever loved it the way I do now, from hundreds of miles north. Sometimes, to see a place more clearly you have to venture far away, to put some distance between you, as you would a lover or a childhood friend.
But now, after living Miami for 16 years, I feel the thrill that first-time visitors surely must, as the undulating emerald carpet of Jamaica’s dense interior, Cockpit Country, fills the aircraft window. The plane banks to the left to reveal a scalloped coast fringed with talcum sand, thick bush, and gray ribbons of highway that have replaced the winding two-lane country roads I used to drive when I lived in Montego Bay.
So, as we begin our final approach, and my memories of the island and its people come flooding back, I wonder what people who’ve never been here before think the country to be like. And I know that whatever their expectations, their experience will be so much more.
That’s because, even among its 30-something other Caribbean siblings, there’s nowhere on earth quite like Jamaica. This tiny island of just over 4,000 square-miles and 2.5 million people has had such a global impact on the world in so many spheres, it’s nothing short of astonishing. I challenge you to find a place in the world where the face of Bob Marley or the strains of “One Love” aren’t instantly recognized and met with a smile. Beyond rum, reggae, and coffee (our Blue Mountain brew is acknowledged as some of the finest and most expensive in the world), we’ve given the world our Olympic bobsled team, jerk chicken, and the planet’s greatest sprinter, Usain Bolt.
But it’s what Jamaicans have kept for themselves that’s even more precious. And it’s something I imagine that new visitors, most coming from developed countries where they’re better off materially than many of the people they’ll meet on the ground, don’t anticipate. It’s the magnetism of Jamaicans – an asset that far outweighs the majesty of the 600-foot cascades at Dunn’s River Falls, the mist-crowned Blue Mountains, or the seven-mile sweep of sand in Negril.
I saw a T-shirt in an airport duty-free shop once. Printed on the front was the phrase “It’s a Jamaican thing; you wouldn’t understand.” But I understood immediately. Because to be Jamaican is to possess an innate confidence and pride that has nothing to do with your station in life. I can’t explain why, but it seems that every Jamaican is hard-wired with an irrepressible lust for life and unwavering confidence, whether they’re living high on the hog or barely making ends meet. There’s a healthy (some would argue unwarranted) sense of entitlement islanders have, which, combined with bone-deep creativity, undeniable charisma, and the uncanny ability to make something out of nothing, distinguishes them wherever they go. If you’ve ever met a Jamaican, you know this to be true. We never blend into the background!
It’s this magnetism that moves people to return here, bringing children and grandchildren year after year to the same resorts, where staff treat guests like family, sometimes even to the detriment of their own. It’s an inexplicable magic that has made Jamaica, despite its very real economic, political, and social challenges, one of the most popular Caribbean tourism destinations. Yes, the beaches bring people to Jamaica, but it’s the people that bring them back.
And even though I wasn’t born there, I know that that much of the confidence I possess as an adult comes from growing up in Jamaica, around people who are loud and proud (and yes, as a friend says, sometimes “wrong and strong”) but never ashamed to make their presence felt. It’s a rock-solid sense of self that, like my passport, I take with me wherever I go, a sort of “confidence visa” that can never be revoked.
To anyone coming to Jamaica for the first time, here’s my advice: Prepare to be seduced. Not only by the beaches or the food or the music or the culture. But by its people. Like first loves or soul mates, Jamaicans will leave an indelible impression on you. And you – whether you realize it while you’re there or it takes until you get home to appreciate it, you will leave all the better for it.