My Jamaica house sits on a hill above Kingston, in a small community among many small communities, protected by a tall, barbed wire-crowned fence, secured with two solid wooden gates and a guard post at the entrance.
I moved here 4 months ago from the US, just outside Washington DC, to reside with my fiancé - the love of my life - for the next few years. A whip-smart economist with a heart of gold, his passion is to work with and in developing countries, places that stand to benefit most his efforts, and those of the organization he represents. It’s a form of career-based altruism I admire, and more pointedly, the commitment of energy required by this type of work - to remain curious, engaged and innovative - are a large part of what attracts me to him.
At present, I am not working. Fifteen years into my career, this move has provided a deeply desired break, and opportunity to rest before diving into the next 15. I’ve filled the past few months contentedly organizing our home, finally working through my years-old stack of books “to read”, working out twice a day, preparing healthy meals, deepening my connection with my fiancé, getting to know this place, and getting to know its people.
So far, I’ve learned that Jamaica is a country loved by many, and passionately so. I’m starting to parse the driving forces of this, and I see that it’s first about the people. Jamaicans are warm, quick with a smile, and exude the feeling of family. Although Kingston is a busy, working city, its inhabitants are aware and engaged in a way I rarely encountered in DC; they say hello, make eye contact, speak with a reassuring tone of voice that often conveys something like, “I’ve got you.” Secondly, I think adoration for Jamaica is about the physical place. Not all Caribbean islands feature mountains, and what I’ve come to learn is that Jamaica is all about its mountains; getting out to “the country”, getting up and out of the city, losing yourself in the hills, where snaking roads are narrow and rugged, trees are dense, and the air is cool and crystal clear. It’s as much a geographic reality as it is a state of mind; Jamaica is uninhibited, colorful, and a little bit wild.
I’ve also been exposed to many day-to-day realities here, which don’t necessarily detract from its perception, just create a more complete picture. Jamaica is a place of diminished stature, aged infrastructure, corruption, economic disparity, and crime. It’s a place where at red lights, men descent upon your car to wash the windshield, or sell fruit picked from the roadside, or hold out their open hands in hopes of a meager payment; where shopping centers are fenced in and guarded by security (or they are to be avoided), where walking alone down the street - as a man or woman, most certainly as an expat - is unsafe, period.
Like most countries, economies, and societies, Jamaica is a complex place with many layers. I frequently vacillate between wonder-filled joy and deep sadness in this place. I marvel at the kindness of people I’m meeting, the beauty of mountains, trees, beaches and birds, the many restaurants, shops, gyms, cafes, and parks that are so enjoyable, and safe to spend time. I relish the exploration within this new life experience, which is teaching me about myself, and binding my fiancé and I together in a way few other things could. The sadness comes when I look more closely at the often crumbling surroundings, when I want to go for a walk around my neighborhood, or a hike in the woods, and simply can’t, at least not alone, and when I remember that - though Jamaicans are hustling to improve their economy - incomes are very low, and cost of living surprisingly quite high.
Finally, I’ve learned that gratitude absent of experience can be alarmingly shallow, more an exercise of abstract acknowledgement than true understanding. While often consciously thankful for my lifestyle and personal freedoms while living in the US, I have to admit that my view was extraordinarily limited. To be completely honest - while writing on my MacBook from an air conditioned room of my gated community home - it still is. But, through this experience, still in its early days, my gratitude has certainly deepened, and along with it, my desire to engage in a more meaningful way.