Desis Abroad: On Jamaica’s Peripheral South Asian Presence

Jamaica, it seems, is a country overrun with enough resorts that a free beach can hardly be found along any of its shores, so much so that you find yourself wondering whether there is anything that exists in this country, that does not have a “Resort Guests Only” tagline to it.

Entire beaches can be found, without anyone around for miles, in Belmont and Blue Fields, and yet, the elusive signage remains, a reminder of the complicated relationship that Jamaicans have with the foreigners who come to visit, but who seldom leave their hotels.

On the streets, you find that taking a taxi can take longer than forever, and yet, because they’re going on a route, you can arguably end up paying the foreign price for everything. Some taxi drivers take pity on you- others are outraged when you don’t succumb to their ploys to steal an arm and leg from you. And then you feel guilty, for an arm and leg here isn’t the same elsewhere.

Some cab drivers will refuse to drive you to your destination without making the pitstop to the ATM, if they find out that you need an ATM, even if you have enough cash for the ride. The logic, it seems, is to make sure that you outsmart each other, keeping within a rote web of corruption, but without insisting on exerting yourself.

However, within this rhetoric, the Indian experience seems to be somewhat different from the other foreigners who come to these parts.

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On my first days in Mo Bay, as Montego Bay is called, I received ample suggestions of how to spend my time, what to avoid. Amongst the instructions were: avoid walking on the streets by yourself, avoid staying out after sunset. And of course: avoid strange men. I decided to be brave. Armed with my brand new running shoes, I climbed about 45 minutes on top of the hill at Bogue. En route, I took my instructions to heart, and only smiled vapidly, vaguely, in return to greetings from a stranger. And yet, before I knew what was happening, he crossed the street and yelled, “RACIST!”

I wonder what that means- that an Indian is supposed to be racist with a Jamaican person. The only distinction that I had hitherto even seen with the said person was that our hair looks different. Other than that, what else was there? And why on earth would I come to Jamaica if I were a racist who criminalized the thought of interacting with a black person?

Indeed, the community of Indian settlers from the subcontinent has long been documented here- byproducts of slavery and colonialism where thousands of traders were brought in from South Asia to either trade or to work on the farms.

Regardless of this unsettling encounter, I am beginning to understand that Jamaicans have a complicated relationship with South Asians. Mo Bay’s famous restaurant Pork Pit, looks as though it’s a barbecue haven that just landed here straight from the coal and wood fires of villages in the Punjab. If that’s not enough, they serve roti, which is unleavened bread.

I was even more surprised at the extremely variegated spice selection in the grocery stores in town. I didn’t see any galanga or wood-eared mushrooms, or even lemongrass, but there were plentiful amounts of cumin and chili powder, even coriander and ginger. A South Asian grocery store on the hip strip serves more than just the basics, and I even found a packet of wet tamarind from India.

I’m impressed by how big “curry” is here in Jamaica. I was not as impressed when I was told that Indian curry means “turmeric” curry. No one I know cooks or cleans extensively with turmeric, but that said, I’ve come to find out a great many things about the Indian settlers here, and what local perceptions of what Indian is.

Food talk aside, it’s interesting that I am considered so different that little children attempted to touch my hair at the Rastafari village. It’s stranger, that every Rasta man greets me by saying “Indian,” and furthermore, that I’m supposed to be happy with this identification, that reduces me down to a nationality, based on the color of my skin.

The main cambio that exchanges currency in Mo Bay’s “Hip Strip” is an Indian, and I got a special price for exchanging my money, just because I spoke to him in Hindi, so I guess there are compensations of forms, in every encounter.

But then then I found Abhi, a lady dressed halfway hip with her selwar without any bottoms, as a dress, who helps to manage a plant nursery next to the Rastafari village, who I met on my first visit to the village.

Abhi moved here from Chennai in 2009 after an arranged marriage. When she first arrived, she spoke no word of English. Indeed, her English accent has a Jamaican twang.

“I am happy here, it is very beautiful and the people are nice,” she says. She likes the country, likes bringing her daughter up here, and between her and her husband, they manage a nursery for an Indian nursery owner, who is currently based out of the States. The space is gargantuan, industrial-sized in reflection of the booming tourist trade here. In exchange for room and board, Abhi and her husband act as the nursery’s caretakers, and I found out that the clients are mostly resort owners and landscapers who are attempting to beautify their space.

Abhi at the plant nursery

Abhi at the plant nursery

Abhi was very friendly- she spent over 20 minutes talking to me, until I realized that she was waiting for me to make a transaction. And even though I do love plants, I have no permanent space to keep them at the moment.

She walked me back to the Rastafari village, where everyone else was eating a late lunch. She asked Arlene many questions about me, was surprised that I travel alone, that I have no husband, and that I am somehow able to travel. And yet, I was left wondering how anyone could move all the way across the world, without knowing anyone, because she was married to a stranger.

I guess love works in mysterious ways, and in this particular setting, similarly tropical natural settings may have sufficed to complement what was irrevocably lost.

It’s fascinating how much the basics can help in bringing people together in a manner that nothing else can. The Indians I have encountered thus far, have clearly influenced the topography of Montego Bay by either trying to complexify the local cuisine by adding new spices, providing monetary services, or beautifying the landscape.

And yet, I’ll still be chewing my pencil tomorrow, to be honest, trying to grasp how staying silent can be perceived as racist

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2 thoughts on “Desis Abroad: On Jamaica’s Peripheral South Asian Presence

  1. This was interesting. I think Jamaicans are purposely mean spirited to give rise to any form of interaction; or as they say in Jamaica “draw you out”. It’s funny because I have been guilty of this EXACT thing.

    It was in freshman year in college, I was at a party dancing with a gorgeous desi girl and I, for some reason, (I forget why) in jest, call her racist. She took offense aaand we didn’t really speak again after that.

    I guess race relations differ depending upon your cultural background.

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