In 2009, on a visit with a friend whose parents have a house in South Pomfret in Vermont, I chanced upon this statue of the Buddha, almost hidden in the bushes by the overgrowth all around it.
One of the Buddha’s teachings is that in the sky, there is no distinction between east and west. These distinctions are created by humans and thought to be true.
It’s been one of those days where I’ve been wondering about what I am doing with my life, and the existential purpose of everything that transpires. The teaching seemed like a wise reminder of the superficialities created by linguistics and cultures attempting at “civilization.”
It is raining down tepidly. The late afternoon breeze is making the fronds of the coconut trees blow wildly, the wild apple and ackee blow along with it.
If I lean to the side of the window of my room, I can see the sea outside. It is dark blue. Mesmerizing.
The sand on the north side of the Jamaican island is whiter and clearer than the south. None of the travel books which emphasize Treasure Beach as an alternative for privacy seekers fails to tell you that. I am not sure if I have seen enough of this country, but what I have come to find is that the crowds are everywhere, and so far, none of the beaches are as engrossing as the ones in Puerto Rico. I am of course, not even trying to be patronizing. Perhaps the only beach that I have truly enjoyed is the ones at Belmont and Blue Fields, so far on the east side of the island.
Negril reminds like a touristy allure reminiscent of Phi Phi, and hence I am not sure I am in a rush to get there. I don’t even mean the best part of Phi Phi, but the dirty meandering streets that intercept any understanding of locality.
In Jamaica as in Thailand, the police are largely absent. Several evenings, I have heard choppers in the distance, and other travelers have told me it is the police riding around and looking for fields growing marijuana, which they will then burn down.
To say the Jamaican government has a complex relationship with marijuana is making only a mild statement. The religion of Rastafarai-ism perceives the plant to be a medicinal herb which, when handled with care, can produce consciousness that seeks reality and truth. On a school visit for the recent Bob Marley month at the Rastafari village near Montego Bay this past week, 200 school children were taught about this herb, after a brief and awkward interjection that it was perhaps best for the children not to know.
I have met a man called First Man, who rides around in a taxi and is somehow one of the leaders of the village. His daughter lives right next door to me. We share the same fan; the walls do not reach to the ceilings, and if either of us were to ever have a night visitor, the other would surely know. He pays some of her bills. He is in partnership with Arlene, my host, for the Rastafari village project, which is sponsored through a loan from USAID, in partnership with the Jamaican government.
I went to the Rastafari village after much hesitation, but I am really glad I did. I had already encountered the larger, privately owned YS Falls, which is about 2.5 hours driving from Mo Bay, and boasts blue pools of crystal waters and ropes to jump down like Tarzan, as stereotypes would insist on you expect.
At first, the idea of the village did not align with my notion of a fun and relaxing time. I felt as though I was continually being told to be a part of an experience that I had no desire in coopting, as I strictly do try to avoid tourist sites, but in a way, I am glad that I caved in.
The village features a waterfall and a shallow river running through it. In the span of minutes after crossing this river, we encountered a cocoa tree, a mulberry tree that was so big that it was far beyond the regular bush sized trees, green pods of almost ready cocoa pods, wild apples and a reddish seed that serves as hair dye or natural coloring tool.
A boy who was staying at the same space as I am now renting the room, drew a heart on my arm.
Other than that, I received a marriage proposal from the drummer of the Rastafari village, who waited until I had crossed the river- possibly for the umpteenth time, after the boy tried to tell me that he and I are a team, and I had run away from him and the school children who were there for the concert, by going to the wellness center and lying down on the hammock.
I’ve decided that if I ever run out of options and must get married, I will move to Jamaica. The Taino, who were wiped out by the Spaniards, invented hammocks, and chocolate. They seem to know the importance of cocooning in a manner which seems crucial, but rather absent. I like how the Garveyist leaning ideologies insist upon a burning flame in their gatherings. A star shaped pyre with a low burning stump of wood greeted us in the clearing on top of the hill past the forest.
There was a girl called Chiara from Milan who has been coming to Jamaica and to Treasure Beach for 15 years. This Jamaican man with gold teeth, Charlie, who introduced himself as a gigolo to me, claims that Chiara is his long time lover. I’ve been told that a lot of women come here for sex tourism.
Apparently my prospects are great if this is my motive, and so far, the men have been throwing themselves in my direction, but they do quickly retreat. After all, I’m the kind who likes to flirt, but recently I am not even going on dates. Certainly, I’m not here to stick around for the quick marriage proposals and promises of forever.
There are women in tight clothes that hardly cover their bottoms, on the streets. Walking on Montego Bay’s hip strip at night, the entrance to the Cornwall Beach is filled with sex workers with double chins, missing teeth but dutifully wearing plastic neon stilettos.
The security guard at the Decameron hotel at the hip strip says that “It’s not safe,” for girls like me. I’ve been hearing that a lot… that a woman who is traveling alone must definitely watch their back, in order to prevent themselves from being robbed. In between being bought drinks by strangers and being told that girls who flirt are “bitches,” you hear that anyone who doesn’t is also rotten?
What is the scope of being a woman who is left alone to their own antics on the streets of Jamaica? The vast web of tourism that controls the trade on the streets, that would be heavily jeopardized by the opening up of Cuba, is focused on providing sexual gratification as a plus to living here. A girl I met from Canada is even keen to move here, because she feels she belongs and can make friends with the local men faster than she ever thought possible. The day after she arrived, she spent three hours with her hair in rollers, ironing clothes and humming to billboard top 100 hits on the radio.
Whatever people’s reasons to travel may be, if they do deviate from the normal “sheltered” girl outlook, it does draw a certain attention, particularly from the older generations, who are keen to foster fear, and insist on all doors being locked at all times, especially at night.
My friend Una was told that she is a brave traveler, because she wanted to travel up the Blue Mountain on a scooter in the middle of the night, and while she was in Mo Bay, she frequently would knock on my window in the middle of the night so that I could let her into the building. She felt as though she had to defend the way she travelled, as well as continually have to point out that the the intentions of those she encountered would blow out of control, if she did not cave in and give them sexual favors.
I have been trying to figure out what I think of being chased continually during my travels. In the house, wherever I go, few people will leave me alone to do my own thing. It is as though they don’t understand that I may have an agenda that does not involve socializing, but writing my thoughts down. At the same time, it makes me question whether I have been traveling to avoid community, and immersion is expected, and even enjoyable, even if not immediately embraced.
So far, I’ve been smiling a lot. A lot more than I did at any point last year. Who knows. Perhaps it’s a good thing. But the fast associations between smiling and the recipient of the smile assuming that my interest in them is a sexual, a romantic one, is fast and furiously ruthless. A woman who travels always faces the inevitable question of what’s driving the travels.
“You’re so out there,” Marisha, a woman from San Francisco who is an interior green architect, told me. Women who travel get this a lot, it seems.
For Marisha, the prospect of travelling extensively for a year was shadowed by how she needed structure in her day. She is interested in urban spaces, has a date for Valentine’s day, and was staying at Cedar Ridge to avoid spending extra money on the hotel at Round Hill, where her cousin from New York was getting married.
In Jamaica it seems men want you all the time, and on the other hand, if you’re actually traveling alone, the expectation that you’re traveling in order to obtain sex, is prevalent, which calls for being careful on the part of a girl. A man who is also a boarder at Cedar Ridge told me that I had apparently promised to bear his children. Another called me 15 times after he got my number. A third followed me along Doctor’s Cave, pretending to work there until I left the compound.
However, these kinds of incidents aside, one of the biggest problems of being a female tourist in Jamaica is that people are quick to become your friends, but these friendships do come at a price. You’re expected to pay for your friend’s drinks, as well as their transportation. An unfortunate tourist who I met in Treasure Beach was confounded to find himself being charged for what he had assumed was consensual sex, and that too, with a girl who was little more than a minor. I suppose it works in every which direction, but basic rules and safety are obviously advisable, and it is best to remember that if you’re a woman, even though you’re going to be getting asked a lot of questions, having a stock answer and not making eye contact goes a long way in thwarting off unwanted attention.
The curiosity, however, does not seem limited to men only. Children who went to the Rastafari village came up to me and lightly touched my hair. Perhaps they saw in me much difference, because a large crowd of them gathered. Arlene stopped them when she saw them, but I did not truly mind that my physical difference to them, highlighted most specifically through my hair, was so apparent to them.
Had I been this curious about strangers too as a child? I wonder, but memories of my nose being buried in books seems more in line with my antics throughout my childhood though.
Running away to waterfalls seems like a good idea though, to detract from those who are keen to extract these promises of forever.