During a recent drive from Northern California to Phoenix, I witnessed thirteen hours of desert, farmland and urban sprawl, most of which you’d never find as a feature in any self-respecting travel guide. When people think of California, fanciful visions of surfers, bikini-clad beaches, palm trees and Disneyland fill the imagination. Living in the Northern part of the state, we have as much in common with Venice Beach and the brass stars embedded on the Hollywood walk of fame as Lady Ga Ga has with John McCain. Both may be respected in their worlds, but couldn’t be more polar opposites. If you judge California by the Botox and billboards, you get a very slanted perspective.
The same holds true for any location, really. Millions of dollars go into creating a bright, shiny image to attract tourists. You can’t get a good feel for the people, the culture, or values from the airport, or the bright spots on a homes-of-the-stars map. The real story is away from the distraction of the crowds.
In Jamaica, if you stay locked away in the resorts in Montego Bay, Negril, or Ocho Rios, you get an artificial experience of the island. Don’t get me wrong, the resorts are superb and they serve as a great way to relax and recharge, but the real Jamaica is a study in contrasts. Enclaves of uber-wealthy and camps of poor families exist side-by-side with an unusual harmonic balance. On a visit to the island, I got off the tourist hamster wheel and experienced the contrast for myself.
A few miles away from my base in Negril, the study in contrasts comes to life. Few tourist caravans travel the roads past the crowded beaches and resorts. Slick painted facades and glitzy shopping districts give way to clustered homes and ramshackle shops. Visitors from Hollywood don’t darken these doors. Locals scrape a living together, selling and reselling anything they can get their hands on. Business isn’t brisk. A few men sit on folding chairs and pass a bottle of over-proof rum back and forth. The clear liquor serves as an antiseptic, mosquito repellant and eliminates the worries of the day. It is a popular item here.
Up the hills from the highway, dozens of concrete block buildings sprout up from the undergrowth and every second one of them looked like they had fallen apart in some massive earthquake. My local friend explained the houses told a different story. The families built their homes as they saved enough money, block by block. I found out that the annual income on the island hovers between six and seven thousand dollars, and with high unemployment, the homes sit in their unfinished state for years. As we drove through, there wasn’t any construction activity going on. A few piles of concrete blocks sat waiting for the promise of better days ahead.
Further up in the rainforest mountain regions, near places like Pennycooke, Dias, and Glascow, the contrast between the resort lifestyle and life in these smaller communities becomes more stark. Wooden homes, cobbled together with scraps of lumber sprout up in small forest clearings. The modest structures don’t look like they could stand against a strong wind. Handcrafted wooden shutters cover the openings where you would expect to find windows. Ancient women brushed the red clay soil in from of their homes with brooms made from tree branches. These people had little in common with the tourists down on the beach, but a sense of peace and tranquility was evident. Complete strangers greeted me and spent time explaining the nature of life in the hills, the plants and animals they relied upon for traditional island meals and celebrations. People here were happy, respectful to each other and told us stories about how a mongoose snuck in and ate their father’s fattest chicken.
After my return to Negril, the culture shock hit me square in the jaw. It seemed similar to the feeling you get after a week of backpacking in a quiet wilderness forest. The traffic, people and sounds put you on sensory overload. Back in Negril, the loud music, rowdy tourists competing for attention and boozy cougars looking for a score, made me realize something. It Ain’t what it looks like. The people up in the hills possessed the real wealth — they were rich in spirit and in things that mattered in life.