The aroma of Blue Mountain Coffee wafting in the breeze… the acrid odor of burnt cane hovering nearby… the pungent scent of citrus kissing my nose…spicy jerk pork sizzling on a nearby grill—these are the smells I love in Jamaica. We have frequently visited this "jewel of the Caribbean"—once for a week at a seaside resort, but most often just a day in port off a cruise ship. This time my husband and I came with the thought of perhaps purchasing our own little piece in paradise, and spent 10 days near Linstead on a citrus and cane plantation, guests of its 4th generation Jamaican owners.
Our host, Ken, nearing retirement, had plenty of time to take us around the island, always with a running commentary about his native land. Tourists who stay in the glitzy resorts and frequent classy restaurants don’t see the OTHER side of this island. Ken opened our eyes to what’s under the surface attraction of Jamaica…and quite frankly, it stinks.
We have never seen roads in such disrepair—potholes so numerous and deep; bridges on the brink of collapsing; buildings so derelict; dogs so skinny; and people so poor. Everywhere we went the sentiment seemed the same—"the government doesn’t care about us anymore. They just gave themselves another raise and forgot about us." And with that, incentive to even try seems to have died.
The cane harvest was on. No young men are in the fields. It’s middle-aged men cutting the stalks with their machettes for $1 per day. And they need a pay advance to buy food to have enough energy for tomorrow. Who will carry on? Mechanization isn’t happening on a large scale. While touring the company town of Worthy Park, established in 1670, we felt a time warp. This season sugar is fetching a good price in euros per ton for the plantation owners. No matter what some think, slavery is not dead in Jamaica.
Ken took us to his "retirement investment"—a condo unit—which he bought about 10 years ago for $350,000 when the Jamaican dollar was in much better stead. It has never been maintained—a promise of the government as owner/developer. Today he could get about $50,000 for that condo. There are investment bargains, but at what cost? Some optimistic foreigners are investing in Jamaica—but we’re not until the government cleans up its act. No amount of apple-polishing can sweeten a rotten apple—it eventually crumbles and the stench is everywhere.
And the "famous" Linstead Market, imortalized in song by Bob Gibson? We hadn’t roamed these streets for 7 years. No strolling for us this time though." Stay in your vehicle with the doors locked and windows rolled up," cautioned Ken, "and you’ll get to see first hand what is referred to as the Haitianization of Jamaica, complete with in-your-face hawkers. Want to take a photo of the wares? Keep your camera and your arms (especially if you’re sporting a watch) inside the cab." Certainly not something to sing about.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love Jamaica. The musical walk and talk of the people, Fern Gully, the Dunn’s River Falls, Hope Street in Kingston, will always pull at my heart. At the moment though, Jamaica doesn’t smell or look so pretty. It will take more than just a little polishing before this "Jewel of the Caribbean" sparkles again. I hope it happens.