Instead, I notice poverty. When we drive through the heart of Kingston, we pass shanty towns. The ramshackle huts look like they belong in a child’s diorama, pasted together out of odds ‘n ends: tin roofs, tarps stretched over holes in the wall, and weathered Red Stripe beer posters covering the windows. Voluptuous women work at stalls, selling pineapples and jerk chicken, while an old man slumps in a plastic lawn chair nearby. I should’ve prepared myself for this, but I still find it difficult to see such hardship, and begin to question the island’s status as a tropical paradise.
One morning, we tackle Chancery hills in Kingston. The sky is still a murky black and a trail of white villas that crests the hills is the only boundary between heaven and earth.
Richard, a youth from a local United Church, guides us this morning. It is daylight by the time we reach the base of the hill. We pass numerous Jamaicans who greet us with a smile and warm conversation. Richard tells me that they are only stopping to chat because most of us are white. Light skin is still a sign of status here, he reminds me. I mention the Canadian girls I know that fake tan year-round. Richard chuckles; here, girls buy products to “bleach” their skin.
“Ah’ right, lissen,” he says. “I go inna store ya - me wid darka skin – an’ if someone with lighta skin comes in, di assistants will go to di lighta-skin one firs’.”
His matter-of-fact tone shocks me, and I fall silent. As we near the top of the hill, the neat white houses turn into sprawling mansions. Richard points to one that is under construction and explains that it’s being built for a dangerous mafia member. We pause next to the house to admire the spectacular view. However, this mansion reminds me of what I can’t see from here. The luxurious villas hide the rundown shacks with their peeling paint.
Economic disparity is not the only problem in Kingston. On Sunday, we walk to church. It’s a very short walk, only a block, but we have to walk past a dead dog on the street. The dog has been there for five days. By now, it lies in a growing puddle of its own decay. Flies buzz around its eyeballs, and its golden fur sheds in matted clumps. The rotting stench hangs heavy in the air, and we cross the street to avoid it. I wonder when someone will come to take it away. This is a suburban neighborhood and the decomposing carcass is propped up against the brick-walled fence of a secondary school, with the church just around the corner.
The Jamaicans sense our discomfort and worry that we might be getting the wrong impression. Richard tries to put things into perspective.
“Dis isn’t da norm, to see tings like dis dog. But still, you hafta realize dat Jamaica is not always a paradise, open ya eyes to da real life situations dat exist… but realize dese situations are relative.”
Jamaicans are aware of the problems in their country. However, Richard wants me to keep in mind that violence, crime, and disparity exist worldwide. Although conditions in Jamaica need improvement, most citizens are confident that the country will change for the better. For now, Richard believes that the best thing to do is to just keep living.
“We know we are troubled - dere are social problems and prejudices – but we hafta keep going cos so many people have already gone through it an’ survived,” he says. “At di end of da day, Jamaica is still my home… an’ nowhere is as good as home.”
Despite being only 19, Richard has developed an insightful outlook on life. By the time church ends Sunday afternoon, I understand the source of his hope and confidence.
Religion is the anchor in Jamaican society. The island is home to over 1600 churches, a Guinness world record for the most per square kilometer. Religion has seeped in to almost all aspects of daily life. Many Christians are heavily involved in their church community throughout the week. By Sunday morning, Richard has already been to Youth Fellowship, a couple of meetings, and a church concert. Still, Richard arrives at church just after seven on Sunday for the early-morning service.
The service is unlike any that I have attended. The minister charges the sermon with his infectious passion for life. Both men and women sway and clap to Jamaican hymns. All around me, deep, powerful voices ring out in a praise chorus.
After it ends, we have a short coffee break before we have to return for a second service.
The sanctuary has become a tropical sauna but the Jamaicans don’t seem to mind the heat. Worship brings out their energy. The second service is more contemporary, and is filled with less traditional music, drums, tambourines and cries of “Hallelujah.” This service reminds me of a reggae-gospel song that the Jamaicans have been playing all week. DJ Nicholas sings, “What a church full of fire. What a church full of life!”
When I get home from church late that afternoon, I find the postcard that I bought at the souvenir shop. I smile at the photos of the resorts, the Rastafarian motifs and the motto: “Jamaica, No Problem.” For most tourists, Jamaica offers a place to forget about worries, but the country has introduced me to an abundance of social problems. Yet, I’ve met people with a remarkable optimism and faith. Suddenly, it seems clear to me why so many Jamaicans are religious; at church, they are able to escape their troubles and celebrate life together. It is here that they embrace the true meaning of the saying, “Jamaica, no problem.”
(Main photo via, edited)
Ellen Keith is a self-confessed nomad, with a passion for history, the Netherlands, and all things Latin. She spent 2012 backpacking alone through South America, and writes about her experiences as a solo female traveler on her blog: http://www.la-viajera.com. She's working on her M.F.A. in creative writing through the University of British Columbia, and is about to move to Amsterdam.