1978. Leicester, England. I was 8 years old. A generous sized group of loud, fast talking people you have observantly identified as your family members and their friends dominate the room. A lot of laughing, dancing, and oversized afros occupy the space; but, that is irrelevant. You’re 8! All you, your 6 year old sister, and your cousins about the same age care about is the wicked cool turntable located in the corner of the room with a 33 1/3 rpm vinyl album pumping out reggae riddims from the likes of Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Desmond Dekker, U-Roy, and of course, Bob Marley & the Wailers. No tapes. No CDs. No iPods. Just 33 1/3 rpm vinyl stored in a cardboard sleeve against a set of speakers the size of a small Honda. If this was your childhood… or lifestyle in the 70’s… You might be Jamaican.
The number one question I get when I travel… “Where are you from?”. Sounds like a simple enough question; but, the answer tends to be a bit more complicated. I was born in Leicester, England. I moved to Amarillo, Texas in 1981 when I was 11 years old. Please. Don’t judge. At age 11, you go where the food, shelter and family goes. For me, that place was the Texas Panhandle. As for my current situation, I call Austin, Texas my hometown. Primarily because my parents have lived here since 1993, and I have lived in Austin since 2000. Typically, I get the “oh, military kid?”. Nope. Jamaican parents. Born in Jamaica, moved to England in the late 60’s.They met. Got married. I was born. Ironically, my accent is neither British nor Jamaican, and barely Texan/American.
Over my years, I’ve discovered that there are 3 types of Jamaicans –
1) ROOTS Jamaican – Born, raised and never left the island of Jamaica. EVER. They are rooted and there is no where in the world better than Jamaica.That would be my Uncle Glenn.
2) TRAVELER Jamaican – Born and raised in Jamaica; but, have left Jamaica to live elsewhere. Canada, United Kingdom, or USA seem to be the dominant destinations. That would be my parents, and a LOT of my aunts, uncles and cousins. The amazing thing about the TRAVELER Jamaican… they ALWAYS go back to Jamaica. In fact, they often have a home back in JA, or plan on building a home to retire back to Jamaica.Loyal. True. Jamaicans.
3) DASH Jamaican – We weren’t born in Jamaica. We’ve never even lived in Jamaica. But, our parents are Jamaican, and Jamaica was a prevalent theme song in our home. We’re DASH Jamaicans, because we were born and raised overseas; Therefore, British-Jamaican. Canadian-Jamaican. American-Jamaican. Texas-British-Jamaican. Ohhhhh… I like that one! Book it Dan-O!
In my 41 years, I’ve been to Jamaica anywhere from 10-12 times. When I go… I’m not staying at a resort, laying out on the beach, drinking Red Stripe while talking to Tiffany and Blake from Michigan, and climbing Dunn’s River Falls (highly recommended I might add). That’s for tourists. Although, I hear the Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa Resort in Westmoreland is spectacular! Same goes for Round Hill Hotel & Spa on the West Coast between Montego Bay and Negril. Everywhere you look, that place is like a postcard just waiting to be mailed. My cousin Martin is a chef over there, so probably should pop in, say hello, and stay awhile next time I’m in Jamaica. Nope. I stay with family. Either in Montego Bay, Mandeville, Kingston, or out in the country – St. Anne’s Parish. No air-conditioning. No hot water. No butler, or maid service to clean the room. No bartender to make your drink of choice, and the food comes from somebody’s kitchen. Good old-fashioned Jamaican cookin’! Home style!
To this day… the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life that I don’t remember – meeting Bob Marley in London and sitting on his lap when I was a toddler (1972-73 time frame). WHAT? Yeah. Sad. But, when you think that my Dad grew up and was friends with Bob Marley in St. Anne’s Parrish – 9-mile, Caldewood District, and they went to school together with Teacher James a Stepney School… mind blowin’. Dad’s about to be 67 in September 2011, which means Bob Marley would have been 66, turning 67 in Feb 2012. They were less than 6 months apart. I’ve been to where they are from. To think that Marley came out of that small region of Jamaica as one of the most influential artists of this century… Remarkable. He died in 1981 when I was 11. But he left his mark. Like Picasso, or Michelangelo. A staple in creating, molding, and dominating an entire genre of music – reggae. Debate it if you will. Bob Marley, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Rolling Stones, and U2 are the only other artists I can think of on that magnitude – globally. OK, maybe Lady Ga-Ga.
Sometimes it sucks not being a tourist. Like I said… next time, I’m staying in a resort. Just so I can experience the other side of “island life”. It could not have been more prevalent than in my most recent trip to Jamaica. Unfortunately, it was for the passing of my Uncle – The late great George Johnson. 97 years old! We weren’t there to mourn his life. We were there to celebrate it! Why? Because that’s what Jamaicans do. We comfortably landed at Montego Bay Sangster International Airport, and made our way to the baggage claim and flawlessly breezed through customs. As I gazed around the airport, I couldn’t help but partake in my favorite hobby – people watching! Oh yeah – dude in Tommy Bahama hat, shirt, shorts and shoes… he’s a tourist. 20-something’s holding hands and kissing in the passport line – on their honeymoon. Family of what looks like anywhere from 15-20 people with TEAM WATSON on their shirts – Really? Really? Rest of the scene – Jamaicans. Or at least 2 out of 3 of the categories I mentioned – TRAVELER, or DASH Jamaicans. Other than exploring new landscapes and cities, discovering fascinating cultures, indulging in delightful cuisine, and enticing beverages, I think my sole reason for travel is to people watch. Hey, it’s the best thing you can do for free. Well… 2nd best. I’ll leave that one alone.
Our family friend – Richard came to pick us up. Now, THIS is where you separate the tourist from the Jamaican. 3 hours through the mountains and windy roads from Montego Bay to Mandeville. A pleasant drive, if you like pot-holes and NASCAR. Yeah… they drive cray-zee over there. And they drive on the left hand side of the road, so that in itself is an adjustment that you better make quickly. I kept looking for the steering wheel in front of me. It wasn’t there. Silly rabbit!
The 1st night was primarily catching up, telling stories and reminiscing about the past. The 2nd night, we went to Grey Grounds on the outskirts of Mandeville for the wake. More like a party than a wake. Music, celebration, drinking, laughing, story telling, and a night full of who’s who. There’s a comfort in discomfort. What the? What I mean is this… I was concerned everything was a bit too foreign for me; but, when it’s your family, you just talk. The rest takes care of itself. You learn who is in New York, New Jersey, England, Canada, and/or still living right there in Jamaica. You find yourself walking your own footsteps. I still remember walking up the hill to Uncle George’s house. There, I saw my Cousins Raymond and Patsy. The twins – Sonny and Brother (his real name is Cedric), and I was 3, then 8, then 12, then 14, then 19, etc. That hill looked a LOT bigger when I was a little kid. Same hill. Same home. Same people. It felt good. Drink some beer and mannish water (goat head soup). This is the non-tourist route.
3rd day. The funeral. The beautiful thing about Jamaica is that church is a whole different ball game than anywhere else I have ever been in the world. It’s like you can feel their spirit and love filling the church. It’s quite the experience. Could just be a lack of air conditioning and 100% humidity; but, hey… I am always moved. Uncle George was honored well. I don’t want to get into the specifics of the service; however, when you look at where you come from – your roots – and you get an opportunity to experience that history lesson first hand – that’s a blessing. What the previous generations did for us is unfathomable. From the Jamaican farm exchange programs with the USA, to the building of the Panama Canal, to England, and back to Jamaica. Unbelievable. And to think that sometimes I complain about having to load the dishwasher, or because there’s nothing good on the 400+ tv channels, or because my computer doesn’t have enough memory and the screen loads slower than I want it to at work. Sometimes you have to simplify your life to appreciate life. Clear out some of the unnecessary mental and emotional road blocks, and just live life. Enjoy and learn who your family is, because it tells a lot about who YOU are. Oh, and if you’re watching the Olympics track events – 100m, 200m, or relay, and you find yourself cheering for the green, black and gold instead of the red, white and blue… You might be Jamaican!
TRAVEL | EXPLORE | DREAM | DISCOVER