“Jamaica’s not going anywhere Amara, you could always rebook for another time.”
I was only half-listening to my mum as I opened a thirteenth tab to search through booking.com for an affordable hotel for my now solo trip to Jamaica. “Jamaica’s not going anywhere, you hear me?” she said again. I respond, knowing that after our hour long conversation weighing up my options, my only response had to be “I hear you”. And I did, but as a fourth generation Jamaican growing up in London and now travelling the world, I couldn’t go anywhere else before seeing home. Jamaica was happening, irrelevant of the sudden change of plans.
I’d never been on a plane for longer than 3 and a half hours before, so travelling to the Caribbean was the longest and farthest trip of my life so far. To clarify, when I booked this trip I had a boyfriend and what I thought was a safety net. A brief timeline; we booked the trip in the spring, broke up in summer and the offer was still on the table for me to join his family in Jamaica in the winter. 3 weeks before the trip and as predicted by the final mercury retrograde of the year and my mother, I was going solo to Jamaica.
After 11 hours in the air, 8 moments of seeing and not speaking to my ex, 3 missed meals (I assumed they would provide the option of vegan meals because, as I said, I had never been on a long haul flight) and countless drops of lavender oil for the nerves, I arrive in Kingston. Because we are both raised well, we exchange one short and almost useless conversation at baggage claim before I slip out towards my transfer for the first taste of Kingston.
Outside of the airport is busy, a non-chaotic and rhythmic kind of busy that resembles the outside of a club when the rave has finished. Taxi men and drivers in neat uniform dripping in evening sweat shout to each other, luggage skirts its way through the crowd, “excuse” and “mek me pass tru” follow closely behind the path the luggage is making for the owners. I, being the quietest of everyone here, am enjoying it all. I see my driver holding my name on a card, tells me his name is Thomas as he guides me through the crowd. In a matter of seconds we drive off past the university with tall girls with their long legs and long skirts, past the runners glistening in the dark and into a pitch black night.
Thomas is the kind of man whose smile gradually increases with trust and time. After answering a few of my prodding questions about where on the island he was born, where he lived and the parts enjoyed most, he shed the polite smile as I unlocked a broader one.
He asks me in English not Patois what brings me to Jamaica. I tell him the lie I decided on, “I’m visiting family in Kingston and then heading to Ocho Rios for a few days”. A smile shines through his eyes while he indicates and turns into New Kingston, “Which part of Kingston are your family from?” St. Andrews, I replied. My father’s mother is from there, and had she not been in England for an operation, she, being my only grandparent still tied to the island, is who I would have stayed with. He gave me a nod of approval, an itinerary of things to see in Kingston and a final wide smile that dimpled his face.
As we pull up to the Knutsford Court Hotel gates, I recite the itinerary back to him to show I was listening - “Strawberry Hill, Emancipation Park, Bob Marley museum, Blue Mountains”. I thank and pay him and write down his recommendations, for another time. Tomorrow morning I leave the capital city and head straight to St Ann's parish of wood and water. Ocho Rios is where the adventure begins.
The journey from Kingston to Ocho Rios is nothing short of mystical. Maybe it is my city-upbringing, but the sheer lushness of the land with the highways twisting around unkempt jungle and rainforest as well as the untouched hillside kept me occupied for the entire 2 hour coach trip. On arriving at Ocho Rios I have to depend on trust and prayer that I find a good driver who will take me to my resort.
I ask at the desk where I’m initially pointed towards Trevor.
Trevor, to my misfortune was in the middle of a conversation he didn’t seem willing to interrupt. He instead directs me towards a dark skin man with light brown eyes and a smile that showed he must have been quite the cheeky young man. My new driver introduces himself as Mr Reed, indicating for me to get in the front seat, the way my grandad used to, “Come Baby”.
Mr Reed is an Ochi man, born and raised by the water and very proud of it. As we drive through Ocho Rios town, he points to the houses nestled in the lush green (missing word?) overlooking the busy town centre, this is where he lives. Mr Reed occasionally stops his driving tour to ask me questions, this time he asks, “You like to party?” To which I reply a simple “Yep” out of ease rather than honesty. “Well then you must go to Margharita - good dance, loads of tourists and Jamaicans - but you have to go on a Sunday evening. On Mondays, there is a better place to go, you have to turn down this road —“
The car swerves and I’m not listening anymore, just nodding. I’m looking at the school kids outside Juici patties and the men on the corner, some bagging fruit and others shouting at each other over the dancehall on the sound systems. Jamaica was colourful in every sense and I couldn’t believe I’d made it here alone or that it had taken me so long or even that I was ever afraid. “Here we are” announces Mr Reed as we pull up outside a quiet white and blue resort, the kind I would later learn where Jamaicans from across the island come to spend the weekend, rather than the kind solo travelling tourists end up.
One of my personal musts when solo travelling is to make friends with the hotel staff. Bobby (the receptionist?), became my favourite person to chat to. On arrival, she greeted me with a head nod and a purpled lipped smile before turning to Mr Reed and accusing him in fast patois of not coming to visit the hotel often enough. I immediately liked her.
While they gisted, I signed in and paid for my stay. After Mr Reed left, Bobby and I leaned on the counter in the hotel lobby and spoke about Jamaica and England and Island men and the ocean. “You should go snorkelling!” she said , flicking through the dusty excursion pamphlets that Jamaican guests don’t usually need. “I would but I can’t swim” I admit shyly, knowing that I would be at least waist deep in the ocean the next day. Her almond shaped eyes narrow as she laughs with her hands, informing me that she can’t swim either and is actually scared of the ocean.t That however, didn’t her stop her from snorkelling anyway. When I asked her how she overcame the fear she told me that she loves the ocean more than she fears it and so she just trusted the instructor. I make no promises about the snorkelling but I keep her bravery in mind.
The next morning, Mr Reed picks me up and takes me to Bamboo beach which Bobby recommended. He walks me in lets the bar staff know to look after me and informs me that he will return at 5pm as I requested. Bamboo beach is much smaller than I imagined but an undeniable paradise. As I walk onto the hot sand an elder woman dressed entirely in white stops me and asks for my name. Upon realising that I’m not who she thinks we compliment each other’s hair and wish each other a good day. I remember Bobbie’s words and make my way into the ocean. Made brave by her snorkelling stories, I let myself get chest deep, feet firm on the ground but more immersed than I had ever been before.
I realise that there isn’t a feeling like it, feeling at home not because you assimilate or speak the language or get mistaken for a young Jamaican by an elder but just because your body eases into the land.
I spent most of the day either in the ocean or sitting on the expensive lounge chair that I rented, reading poetry and thinking about being back in the ocean. On about my eighth trip back in, I walked around idly, dug my feet into the sand, listened to the waves and filmed myself in my new happy place. My friend watched my Instagram story and responded with a yellow heart emoji and added ‘you look like you walked out of the sea just like this!’. Shortly after, I noticed a woman with her teenaged son swimming in my direction. I thought about how lucky they were to be raised near this and for this to be a normal part of their weekend routine. I noticed how comfortable she was letting her afro get wet in the water, the droplets in her hair glistening the same colour as her turquoise swimsuit. When she catches me smiling, she smiles back and says “You look like a mermaid”. Floating across my path, she continued “like a beautiful little mermaid”. I thank her and think about what Bobbie had said about loving the ocean so much that she trusted herself to snorkel in it. I wasn’t brave enough to swim let alone snorkel but I definitely felt something I had never before felt, like I was supposed to be here, reacquainting myself with the ocean.
Some hours later, I got changed and sat down to watch the sky quietly dissolve into the ocean with my red stripe beer in hand. The only other scene capturing my attention was that of a young Jamaican messing up the photoshoot of the couple beside me. There was something familiar about his jokester behaviour that reminded me of my younger cousins constantly being addressed as ‘ginals’ until older. I laughed, mainly because it made me feel at home.
My laughter was sharply interrupted, “Who yuh ah laugh after?” by a coarse voice from a smiling mouth which made me laugh even more.
We introduced ourselves and I learnt that the coarse voice belonged to Charles, a Jamaican who served in the military but now only lives with the remnants of such discipline with his family by the coast. In short, Charles is that uncle at the family function who holds one drink all night, questions all the young people about their career plans and switches seamlessly between English and Patios depending on his company. Inevitably he asked me what I was doing here alone. I told him that I was in Ocho Rios for a break and that my family live in Kingston and that I’ll return to them in a few days. Charles asked me where in Kingston, to which I replied St Andrews proudly, because I had prepared. To my surprise he continued to ask whereabouts in St Andrews and just before I could answer something vague he offered ‘Stony Hill?’ to which I replied casually ‘yes, near that end’, thankful that he stopped there because I knew nothing about geography beyond basic parishes. “Your dad let you come to Ocho Rios … alone?” I nodded between sips of beer, even though it is really myself and two colleagues who felt that going solo was a brilliant idea. I asked him if he would let his daughter come to the beach if she wanted to and he responds without a beat “no, anything goes in Jamaica”.
From what I knew of Jamaica, I quickly concluded that there wasn't really any sensible response to this so I added something about my family finally trusting me to see beyond St Andrews. When he didn’t interrupt me I went on to explain how I wanted to see the whole picture and see the country in full, not just St Andrews. After a few seconds of contemplation, he nodded, maybe making sense of my pretend situation a little better. “How are you getting around?” I tell him about Mr Reed. Without a breath he responds “Does your family know him, the driver, Mr Reed?” I tell him of course they do and watch Charles unravel into some kind of satisfaction with my interview performance.
What I like about Charles is his ability to help me confirm that Jamaicans are the best storytellers. Even if only, and directly due to the fact that they are known to be the most observant of people. For instance, when Charles asked me why I was walking up and down in the water to just ‘wet my foot’ instead of actually swimming in it, I felt the high eyebrow, double-blink expression overtaking my face. And then I, sagely, stopped it in time and decided to laugh with him rather than tell him that I was actually reconnecting with my soul by way of my inner mermaid. We weaved in and out of witty interactions like this one until I forgot that Mr Reed should have arrived 35 minutes ago. When Charles asked if I was going to church tomorrow I said no, predicting the consequences of telling a Jamaican elder this. He asked why, ready to lecture me, and I told him that I keep the Sabbath instead. Despite my planning, I didn’t end up avoiding the lecture as I (forgetting myself while on holiday), was drinking beer and so was in fact breaking the Sabbath. “You must make it up tomorrow”, said my regimental ex-military new friend. I nodded awkwardly, not knowing what to do with the rest of my beer.
After learning more about me and my previous solo travels, Charles decided quickly that I was a ‘real gangster’ and called over an unwilling staff member to confirm this. Maybe to quieten the noise (almost entirely Charles), the bar staff play Lila Ike’s ‘Second Chance’ for the 5th time that day and I sit to watch the last of the pastel sunset, safe and grateful for my first day of solo travel in Jamaica.
Mr Reed arrived shortly after and enjoyed a can of coke and some conversation with the bar staff before nodding to signal that we were ready to go. Very aware that I had mentioned to Charles that Mr Reed knew my father and was a trusted driver in our family, I tried to quietly make it back to the car without Charles noticing. I failed, of course, because quiet is not the way of Jamaican uncles. To heighten my anxiety, Charles slow-jogged over to the car to greet Mr Reed himself. “Driver!” Mr Reed turned to half smile at Charles who was smiling with all of his teeth and gums. “I just wanted to meet you and mek sure seh yuh drive nicely, me feel like yuh drive fast”. Mr Reed laughed politely and I laughed maybe too loudly with him, relieved because Mr Reed seemed to know everyone here except Charles, a small miracle considering. Charles shared some final advice, some of it serious, some of it only employed to instigate laughter before we went our separate ways. I nodded in the direction of the car and Mr Reed translated my cue. We drove off into the shade of palm trees and the sound of Mr Reed’s radio playing the reggae anthems I grew up hearing.
“Tomorrow at 10am baby? That’s the best time if we’re taking a long drive up the hills to Nine Mile” I waved goodbye as Mr Reed dropped me off at the resort and promised to be on time to experience the famous hills of St Ann’s parish.
The drive up the hills was something I will never forget. We drove up on a Sunday, which in Jamaican culture is a day dedicated from morning to evening to church activity. The 90 minute journey became gradually wetter as we drove deeper into the hills, it became slower as the roads were less smooth and the accents became thicker and harder to understand as we moved away from the town and into rural grounds but there was never a lack of church people, never a lack of loud, hymnal song from some baptist or evangelical or pentescostal church for the entire journey.
Having grown up for part of my life spending Sundays and summers in South London’s Brixton, this was all very familiar to the extent that if I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to a random scene from my childhood. Sitting in Mr Reed’s car with his playlist playing the mixture of roots reggae and classic Bob Marley tunes on repeat in the background, hearing the snippets of patois out of my window and even the echo of sermons and worship or the scent of early sunday dinner being prepared, all felt like normal parts of my upbringing. What felt overwhelmingly out of place for me was the lack of concrete, the abundance of greenery in the hills and the untamed wildness of it all. It was a surreal experience, at times uncomfortable and then suddenly exciting once again.
“Yuh see those houses up there, inna the hills?” Mr Reed, merging full patois and english to talk to me now, interrupted my conflicting emotional soliloquy. “Owned by Englishman”, he pouted his lips until it turned into a smirk in a way that doesn’t need to be translated into english or patois. The rest of the journey Mr Reed points out all the unfinished houses being built up in the hills and I wonder how many of them belong to Jamaicans.
It goes without saying that Bob Marley is the most famous Jamaican to have walked the Earth. Being able to see the room that he slept in, the view he would see every morning and even the kitchen that his mother would’ve cooked family meals in was an interesting experience. I always knew that my mum was partly inspired by Bob Marley’s grandfather’s name - Omariah - when naming me. Seeing his photograph hanging on the walls of the preserved living room was a pleasant surprise that I didn’t expect to move me so much. Our tour guide leaned into the easy-going and extravagant Jamaican personality which meant that we moved through the tour with an abundance of stories, riddles, music, encouragement to buy and smoke with ‘no problem’ followed by the recital of psalms and wise words.
On our drive out of the museum, I noticed a building painted in red, green and yellow with faces of prominent Jamaican freedom fighters. “It’s a school, I think the Marley brothers help to build it up”. Mr Reed, used to me by now, unlocked the car door so I could get some pictures. I wanted to Whatsapp them to my grandad; this school with paintings in honour of Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, Nanny of the Maroons, Norman Manley and more would make him smile. It took me back to my thoughts about how familiar and yet alien I felt. Here I was, taking a picture of a school, completely in awe of something so everyday. A part of me couldn’t imagine the idea of walking into school with all of these powerful national heroes in my face, reminding me of my blackness and my history. I knew these faces to belong in the black history books placed only in the black book shops that exclusively existed in the black neighbourhoods. What I now know to be a small and struggling primary school called ‘Rhoden Hall Basic School’ represented, in that moment, the first of many moments of longing for the one part of Jamaica that could never exist in England. After I had enough photos I got back in the car for our 90 minute journey from the earthy quiet of Nine Mile to the bustling Ocho Rios town centre.
[to be continued]