So Mr. Pretty and I are cruising away from Sanger International Airport in Jamaica in an old olive green mini van when the driver, a grizzled and skinny Jamaican man (the owner of the guest house at which we’re staying), says, “The guest house shares a wall with the Sandals resort next door.”
“They build these real tall walls, then make ’em higher,” he continues. “Put razor wire right on top.”
“It sounds like a prison,” Mr. Pretty says.
He wasn’t wrong–the Sandals looks like a perfect wedding cake of a McMansion, barely visible behind enormous gates and sharp-topped walls. As we rode past, there were two or three tall, young black men in white uniforms hovering near the front doors, I assume waiting to greet the new guests . . . who would then never leave the grounds until the end of their vacation, when they would board a bus–inside the gates, of course–and be whisked away to the airport. They even have a special priority line at the airport for Sandals guests flying in–no waiting for them with the rest of the rubes in the coconut-scented cattle chutes of Passport Control!
The guest house we stayed at is in the Whitehouse area of Montego Bay. It’s primarily a village full of fishermen and their families. There are a few really beautiful houses, surrounded by a lot of houses that are half built–some as small as a single room, some as large as a few stories, all concrete, rebar sticking out the top, waiting for the next addition or rigged with spare parts–corrugated metal sheets or random doors. Part of the issue (with all the half finished houses, I mean) is that Jamaicans don’t make a ton of money, even if they work in the tourism industry (which is their top industry)–and part of is that it’s almost impossible to get a mortgage…so they build as they’re able. One morning, Mr. Pretty and I were putzing around the neighborhood when we met a local named Mr. Jones, who told us about the way the houses are being built and the neighborhood is being transformed, specifically by neighbors banding together to form partner plans, which is essentially like a pyramid scheme. It doesn’t sound like a great idea, but it gets things done. Slowly, but still.
That was a bit of a tangent, but all that to say the neighborhood perhaps might look a bit unfinished or run-down by middle class American standards–which can be scary to folks who choose a value all-inclusive chain for their vacation needs. In addition to the housing, there are tiny, hole-in-the-wall catch of the day restaurants along the road and bars that little more than concrete shacks with no glass in the windows. Mr. Jones might be a little scary to some folks, too. I mean, the guy practically ran up to us to welcome us to Jamaica (we are very obviously not Jamaican) for starters, but he also lacks a full set of teeth, and he lost half a foot to diabetes. Say what you want about Americans being friendly, but we’re really only friendly on our own turf. The fact remain, though, that the neighborhood is safe, and everyone in Jamaica was so incredibly welcoming to us.
Like I said, Mr. Pretty and I met some folks in the neighborhood, and we most certainly ate at those hole-in-the-wall restaurants (which served up incredibly fresh food, including fresh-catch fish and lobsters). One thing we heard from every single person was that Sandals sucks. They hate that people come to visit Jamaica without really visiting, without interacting with real Jamaicans (for the most part), and without actually impacting the local economy.
I’m reminded of Kincaid Jamaica’s A Small Place, when she talks about Antiguans–despite having won their independence from England years and years ago–finding their country colonized by tourists, themselves the victims of imperialism, because everything in the country is completely geared toward pleasing tourists (who consider them the “other”) instead of building an environment for actual Antiguans and which actually benefits Antiguans. Jamaica has a similar history and, similar problems with tourism. Believe me–I’m not saying my way of being a tourist in another country is any better than anyone else’s. The locals probably despise me just as much as anyone else. Okay, maybe not as much as the Sandals people.