I read somewhere that there were more Jamaicans working in Cayman Islands resorts than any other nationality. I began to believe this when our Little Caymans resort van driver pulled up and screeched to a halt (sending sandy dust clouds into the air). The minute he arrived, we could hear the rhythmic reggae music he was playing on the van’s stereo. I mused to myself "Oh yeah, he’s from Jamaica."
I went on something of a quest to find out more about why Jamaicans choose to work in the Caymans, and what their lives are like being away from the home they know in Jamaica. Where might a Jamaican resort employee live on this expensive, very minimally populated island? How do they manage to feed themselves, and family members, on this extravagant little island on a resort employees pay? Has the Jamaican culture begun to blend with that of Caymanian culture?
I sat one night at the resort dinner buffet, pondering who I wanted to talk to about Jamaican culture. Suddenly, I was snapped out of my daze by our Jamaican waiter ("Louie" - a.k.a. Errol) asking politely "Is there anything else I can get you?" After a short discussion, my travel buddy and I decided to ask Louie to meet us in the resort game room after he was off from work at 9pm. We explained to him that I was writing an article on Jamaicans working in the Caymans, and wanted to interview him. Shortly after 9pm, Louie strolled in with a Jamaican-born friend of his named Denvil (apparently his name is pronounced "Danville"). They both had pleasant smiles on their faces, but both seemed slightly guarded.
I noted that there seemed to be an age difference between Denvil and Louie. Denvil looked a few years younger, probably only because Louie was sporting a tiny patch of salt and pepper beard on his chin. Louie seemed very self conscious about his well-earned tiny bit of gray. Louie was of average height, and was dressed more like an islander, whereas Denvil reminded me more of a prep from the east coast. Denvil was very tall, youthful, and energetic. As it turned out, Denvil was single, and in his mid-twenties, Louie was in his mid-thirties, with a wife and child back in Jamaica. They were both extremely polite and professional throughout the time we spent with them.
Once we were all comfortable and seated at the poker table inside the quiet resort game room, I began to ask some milder questions first…"So, why did you two decide to leave your lives in Jamaica and come to the tiny Island of Little Cayman to work?" Louie replied "The money I make here is worth much more back home in Jamaica. I have a wife and child to take care of. The job opportunities in Jamaica just are not there. I cannot make good money in Jamaica. I am working here for my family, so that they are taken care of." Denvil interjected with "I’m here for the job opportunity, and the ability to learn, move up in my career, and the chance to travel." "What are your job titles here?" I asked. Louie replied with "I do a little bit of everything, I act as waiter, host, clear tables, help the kitchen staff, and whatever else is needed of me." Denvil said "I am a chef here."
We took a short break while my travel companion fetched us a few drinks from the bar at the resort. After a sip of my somewhat watered down rum punch, I said "I understand that it’s quite dangerous in Jamaica, where could we go in Jamaica where it would be safer?" At this, both men seemed somewhat offended, and took great efforts to make it clear that Jamaica is not entirely the unsafe place many think it is. Louie stuck his chest out and said "You come to Jamaica and have me with you as a guide, nobody would bother you, because you are with a Jamaican." At any rate, Louie continued with "The safest places to go are Negril, Ochos Rios, Montego Bay, as well as a few other spots. However, DO NOT go to Kingston, even the Jamaicans avoid Kingston because it is a very violent, dangerous place. We Jamaicans hate that our country has been labeled as such a dangerous place... Don’t be mislead by the negative rumors about Jamaica. "Denvil piped up and said "I was born in Jamaica, but grew up in Canada and am a Canadian citizen." I could see that Denvil had a Canadian "air" about him. Denvil did not have the Jamaican lilt that Louie possessed. I knew there was something different about Denvil. Conversely, Louie then told us a story about a shooting incident and how gunshots are all too common in Jamaica. He explained that the bad things happen in only certain places, usually the bigger towns/cities. Violence is not at all common in the more rural areas.
At this point, I decided to start asking the harder questions. "So how are you all able to afford to live on this expensive little island when surely rent on this island is so unaffordable?" Louie replied "The resort has apartments for us, and they charge us a reduced rental rate. Most of us live on property here, with some of us living in the apartments across the street, and some living in the apartments behind the gift shop at the resort. Some of us pay only $100 a month in rent, while others have to pay $300 a month." "That doesn’t seem quite fair to me", I said. "It isn’t, he said." Denvil threw in "I pay $200 a month for a tiny space with a small bed." Denvil described his accommodations as not much larger than what a lower level cruise ship employee might have. I got the impression that those on staff who were Canadian, or were from any other country besides Jamaica, were receiving better housing at cheaper rental rates from the resort management/owners.
Louie explained that the Cayman government is beginning to refuse work visas from Jamaican applicants because the Cayman government seems to believe that crime has increased as a result of the influx of Jamaican resort workers. However, the Canadian woman running the gift shop at Little Cayman Beach Resort said "The Cayman government is also refusing work visas from Canadians now as well. I think they are getting tired of seeing primarily applicants from Jamaica and Canada only, and want some new blood in the Caymans. I tried to get my Jamaican boyfriend into the Caymans for work; his visa was refused." No matter which way you slice it, it appears the Cayman government is getting quite picky about who it will allow into the country to work.
To lighten the mood a bit, I asked "So what are the favorite traditional foods of Jamaicans?" Louie smiled and answered wistfully "Mmmmm, curried lamb, hominy (grits), roasted breadfruit, Jamaican oxtail, fried plantains, boiled plantains, peas and rice, sweet potatoes and many other tings." I love the way Jamaicans pronounce "things" as "tings." Louie went on to describe the manner in which some of these foods are prepared. He also told us that "In Jamaica, no one minds if you pick fruit from their tree or vine. Everyone does it, and no one minds at all, it’s the Jamaican way."
The distance to Jamaica from the Caymans is only 300 miles, so Louie is able to fly home to see his family about twice a year. Though Louie did complain that airfares to Jamaica were very difficult for him to manage.
One ting is for sure, the Jamaican food is working its way readily into the Caymans, as we saw several of the Jamaican dishes Louie described on the buffet at Little Cayman Beach Resort, especially in the mornings. It kept breakfast interesting. Surely, our chef Denvil had a hand in preparing these dishes. I think sprinkling some Jamaican food and reggae into the Cayman islands is actually quite a wonderful thing.
Louie has been working on the island for this resort for many years and plans to stay for a few more, while Denvil has only been there for 2 years. Denvil seems content, but somewhat bored.
On our final day, Louie and Denvil prepared some special plantains for our last morning at the resort. They both saw us off the morning of our departure. Talk about personalized service! They were so polite, so kind, it would be hard to think of Jamaicans or Canadians as anything but wonderful people.
In sum, while things for the Jamaicans and other foreign workers here may be somewhat difficult (tiny rooms in which to sleep, long work weeks, and being homesick), overall, they seem to be happy. It’s too bad that the Cayman government does not see what a wonderful addition to their country Jamaicans have become.