Jamaica - a contradictory countryMay 182017
On the one hand you can find nature loving Rastafarians, peaceful reggae music, the smell of marijuana, small fruit and veggie stalls on every street, beautiful green mountains, and many little farms where they grow everything you can imagine (banana, coconut, pepper, corn, kale, pumpkin, carrot, ginger, avocado, nutmeg, pineapple, tomato, cucumber, salad, jack fruit, bread fruit, lemon grass, star apple, ackee, soursop, kalaloo, bok choy)... On the other hand there is a lot of poverty and crime on the island, sexism and homophobia in the society and music (dance-hall), people wish for capitalism, have an unhealthy diet and burn their plastic waste in the backyard, because there is no recycling system.
Usually hitchhiking is my way of transportation but in Jamaica I have only been using local buses and route taxis so far. Why don't I keep traveling like I have always done it? It seems to be inconsistent. Well, at first it is not common to hitch lifts here on the island. But this shouldn't stop me from trying, because it hasn't been common in a lot of places I went to. Second, I must say that I don't feel as safe as in other countries like Guadeloupe for instance. This is also due to the fact that white people are associated with money here. It is hard for me to develop a gut feeling for the people here. I can't say why exactly but it also has to do with the fact that everyone wants to sell me something in the streets. Everything is about money, clearly, because it is expensive to make a living in Jamaica. The prices are the same or even higher than in Europe or the States but the average income is much lower. So here comes the third reason: Aleya, my first couchsurfing host, told me that people don't hitchhike here because you would not support the bus and taxi drivers. That way they can't earn money to feed their families. Anyway, the transportation is so cheap that everyone can afford it. There are different „social classes“ if you want to get from one place to the other. You can take a route taxi or local bus, which are mostly packed, not very comfortable and only go on certain routes and pay only 8 € to get to the other side of the island. Or you can pay many times more and sit in a fancy bus with AC and TV or in a charter taxi which will drop you off wherever you want. The original reasons behind hitchhiking for me were the following: I wanted to meet locals, be able to travel for longer by saving money and minimize my carbon footprint. In the local buses and route taxis you can learn a lot about the country, because you don't just sit next to each others in silence. In the local buses and route taxis they won't depart before every single seat is occupied to use up the space and maximise the bus driver's income. But to be fair, while waiting for the customers, the motor is always running to be able to play loud music... Enough of the confession - let's start with the travel report!
Right after Christoph and I arrived, we met the crew of an astonishing huge schooner called Germania Nova. You could fit his Shalom seven times on the deck of the two-master. This ship is like from another world for us. Together with the crew members Linn and Pat we got invited by Skadoo, a local Rastafarian, to visit his farm in the surrounding mountains. He grows everything there from lemon grass to bananas and ginger and climbed a 30 meter tall star apple tree to get the ripe fruit from the top. We also got our first overproof rum there (63%) and tried some of his homegrown ganja.
After I bid farewell to Christoph, I asked the couchsurfer Aleya to stay at her place. She is originally from Jamaica but has been living in Europe and the States for many years. That's why she is able to see her home country from the outside and explain to me the reasons for the contradictions in the culture and what an important role the history of slavery plays for the society.
I really felt like a walking wallet here. Every time I went into town, people shouted at me: “Hey Jesus, wait! Come here! Do you need a taxi? Do you want to take the bus to Kingston? I have got some ganja for you! I am a musician and sell my CDs! I can offer you a tour through my plantations? Here you can buy the best rum! Here you will have the best jerk chicken in Jamaica!” Ironically, my hosts told me that the Jamaican parish of Portland, where I was, is the most relaxed regarding tourism, crime and violence. I didn't feel particularly insecure, but the people were much more intrusive than in all the other countries that I have been to so far.
Portland was beautiful. The capital Port Antonio once played an important role in the export of bananas to the USA. The steam boats would leave with bananas and pineapple and come back with tourists. Nowadays there is not much left of this big traffic and cultural exchange. Apart from a few white sailors, I could only see locals wandering through the streets. On the shore line there were some little uninhabited islands where you could swim from the mainland and explore them on your own. The mountains started right behind the coastal towns and were covered with lush forests. There is always a little breeze blowing, which makes the heat bearable.
Before I came here with Christoph, I already found a place to work for bed and board in the west of the island. Kim and Aida (mother and daughter) lived in the mountains close to Montego Bay and owned a big property. Two years ago they came over here from the United States. The house was already standing but still incomplete - they wanted to add a second floor and a proper roof. Apart from that, they were planning to build tree houses, a wooden shed and to prepare the area for some gardening, because they would love to grow their own fruits and vegetables one day. When I arrived, they gave me a warm welcome and showed me where I can pitch my tent. When I asked them where the toilet was, Kim just pointed to the forest behind the property. She said that she could give me a bucket or some plastic bags. I was a little confused, because they had a bathroom and a kitchen in their house and advertised their project to be “off-the-grid”. But I didn't want to be impolite, so I just asked them if I could make a dry toilet from the scrap wood that I found lying around. Kim liked the idea and I started to build my own loo, so that I didn't have to go into the forest, dig a hole a let my butt get bitten by thousands of mosquitoes every day.
Kim seems to be happy with my job.
I really liked the work. Kim made sure that I always had the right tools at hand and I got fed so very well by her and Aida. The food they made was healthy, scrumptious and mostly even vegan. It was just a little bit weird for me that I was not allowed to enter the house. So there was no common area like in all the other places I was helping out and I couldn't use the kitchen either. That is why I felt a bit excluded sometimes. For every little thing I had to knock at the door and hope for an answer. I got used to this rule pretty quickly but I still don't understand the reason behind it. I take a bath either in the river down the road or on the water tap with a water container. It was so nice to shower under the sky. Instantly, I felt much cleaner and more refreshed.
Kim told me about another project, which is a 30 minute walk away. There were a lot of foreign people like me helping out and every Friday there was a movie night. She said that she didn't want me to feel lonely, so she suggested to visit the place and handed me my dinner and something to drink. Then I went up the hill from Lethe to Eden. There were no sidewalks or footpaths and you could hear a new song playing after every corner or every car that was passing by. The whole island was actually full of music. There are hardly any silent moments. Everything is alive! When I arrived to the place, the owners Melissa and Gillie and five German helpers met me with a warm response. The volunteers were all living in self-made bamboo tipis. They transformed an old bus to serve as the bar, added an outdoor kitchen and a big roof. This was the kind of communal space I missed at Kim's place. All the tables and benches were made either of old palettes or sticks that they found in the bushes. This place had quite some character!
On our days off we all went to the river to go rafting.
After a few days, Kim told me that she couldn't afford to buy more materials to work with. She had to wait for her wages first. So I decided to move to the Magic Yellow Bus. Melissa offered me a tipi and I got along really well with the Germans Hannah, Franzi, Anika, Philipp, Thilo and Milan from the very beginning. Our main task was to build an earth bag house. We were mixing limestone and clay in bags to stack them like bricks. After that we stomped them so that they got more compressed and form a leveled wall.
For our hard work we got amazingly nutritious Jamaican food every day, made by Gillie. Despite the fact that he started every morning with a cup of rum in one hand and a joint in the other, he made three delicious dishes per day and used mainly ingredients from his garden. Those were very peaceful times until we got robbed.
I was just playing the last song of the evening on my guitar when someone pulled the phone out of my pocket from behind me. I turned around and saw a gun facing my chest. The man had got a mask and told us to lie down on the ground. Everyone had to give them their phones and cash, and we all kept calm to not provoke the nervous burglars. We were seven people laying down inside the bus with our eyes facing the ground, not moving. One of the four bandits pointed his gun at us while the others were searching the tipis. It felt like it would take forever. They stole every electronic device, all the alcohol and money they could find. Fortunately Melissa convinced the robbers to escort her to her house so she could stay with her children. At least! After one hour they finally left. Thankfully no one was hurt, and were so happy for that despite the fact that most of things were stolen. The police came much too late - two hours after the incident we saw the blue light appearing. Of course the bandits were far away by that time. I think no one of us will ever forget what had happened that night. There are no cell phones anymore, no computers, cameras or cash. At least they didn't take the passports and credit cards. Even though, the next morning we were all still in shock. Melissa immediately called a security company to send an armed guard to her place who would watch the area at night.
This is why there are not as many photos in the travel report as I would like there to be. But we managed to keep up the good vibes and continue the work on the project. It is not that we were all traumatized, but still we felt a general suspicion towards the Jamaican society. I was getting nervous when I walked through the streets or listened to loud conversations. Although I didn't want it, my awareness of danger increased dramatically. I wanted to keep trusting in humanity. So many people have helped me during my journey. So many strangers have placed their trust in me and have invited me into their homes out without expecting anything in return. I didn't want one negative experience to overshadow all these nice moments.
A few days later, we all continued our individual paths. Hannah flew back to Germany. She had been here for a very long time and really took the Eden family into her heart. I was not easy for her to leave. Franzi continued her journey and went to Guatemala. Philipp, Milan and Thilo asked me if I wanted to join them to explore the island for a week. I gladly did and so we chilled out at the coast in Negril. Philipp's friend Eddie lives there and let us stay in his house.
Then we went further to Kingston. My dad was on vacation in Cuba and came down to visit me in Jamaica! It is so nice to see him again after eight months. Together we climbed the highest mountain (Blue Mountain Peak) at night to enjoyed the sunrise from the summit.
After this little adventure we went back to the capital, stayed there for one more night and then he had to fly back to Cuba. It was an incredibly short visit, but it was so wonderful to have my family around me, especially after the drama of the robbery. Our last stop was in Port Antonio, the town where I arrived one month ago on Christoph's boat. Aleya was so kind to host us for a few days. We explored the surroundings, swam to Monkey Island, went snorkeling and relaxed.
Hanging out on Monkey Island
When the rest of the group left to return to Germany I helped my host to make a present for her mom. She had got a lot of bamboo and wanted to make a bedside table from it. Together we kind of succeeded - it was not perfect but it was all hand made! Bamboo is a really interesting material to work with and is completely different than straight boards. I always learned something new when I stayed at Aleya's.
I made use of being so close to the port and asked for boats to Central America. Actually, I really wanted to go to Mexico straight away, because I was living there with a host family ten years ago so it would be great to go and visit my friends - and it is so close to Jamaica. I put an advert in the window of the marina office, but soon after that I noticed a super yacht on the dock. The crew members Denzil, Jake and Neill were all really nice guys and offered me a lift to Florida but unfortunately not Mexico. Wow, I wouldn't ever have have imagined to sail on a multi-million dollar yacht. But anyway, one day later I receive an email from a man named Aldo. He saw my advert and was looking for a crew member to go to Panama. He is from Uruguay and sails single-handed so he wanted some help with navigating and cooking for the long passage. Actually, I preferred to go to Panama so I decided against the luxurious lift to the land of endless possibilities. I rather take another adventure where I feel more useful aboard.
So here I sit on Aldo's 30-foot sailboat “Still Free,” waiting for a good weather window so we can start our one week trip to the south.