Since arriving to Kingston, I have had the task of “getting inside the Jamaican mind” so I can appropriately navigate within my new home! It has been a hilarious, informative, exciting, adventurous, and slightly chaotic process … so here, as one of Kingston’s newest residents, I will share some of my favorite things I have learned about Jamaica in my first few weeks!
1. Be Flexible
My story begins September 15th. We were gathering our (too many) bags from the baggage carousel at the Kingston airport when my lovely roommate Christine received a call from her friend and realtor, Karen. Karen informed us that she had suddenly found us a new apartment to live in – we jumped in a cab to this mystery address and wondered what this last minute apartment change would bring us! When the car finally stopped 30 minutes later, we were sitting outside … a very pink apartment complex. The individuals who worked there welcomed us with friendly faces, and we quickly came to realize that Karen had found us the perfect home away from home. Since we have landed in Kingston I have seen that “going with the flow” is an important part of living in Jamaica, and being open to experiences constantly presents me with unique and rewarding opportunities!
2. Mi Cant Understand Yuh
The official language in Jamaica is English, however the common spoken language is Jamaican Patois. I was expecting to be able to understand most conversations in Jamaica due to its English roots; however, I have discovered that even though their Patois is English based it’s a completely foreign language to my Canadian ear. It became clear very quickly when Jamaican’s were talking specifically to you, versus when they were chatting with those around you. Everyone speaks English so communication is not an issue, but trying to decipher the office and street chatter has proved to be very difficult! Currently, I can only pick out a few select words in conversations, but everyone has taken great pleasure in trying to teach me the “Jamaican Slang”! Occasionally I’ll be at work meetings and someone will say a joke in “Jamaican” and I will hear a chuckle from another part of the room as someone voices, “Now explain what that means to Jamie!” It has been a humorous experience becoming acquainted with the Patois and am hoping I get the hang of it soon enough!
3. Jamaica is H.O.T.
Sweet and simple, Jamaica is extremely HOT!! I have quickly learned and developed so much respect for Jamaicans because every task – walking, getting groceries, exercising, working, wearing a suit to work – becomes much more difficult when faced with this extreme heat! I commonly say “I’m melting”, which basically captures how I look while roaming the city!
4. There’s Always Someone Looking Out For You
I vividly remember the first time I walked to work. I walk a couple kilometers each direction and have multiple busy intersections to cross which proved to be an adventure because there were no cross walks. It was a quick learning process where I learnt to commit and bolt across the road, weaving between cars; the phrase “why did the chicken cross the road” always runs through my head as it’s a pretty accurate description, and I do need “to get to the other side”. However, locals somehow manage to recognize that I’m a little nervous about crossing these intersections, and will often accompany me across the road to make sure I’m safe. It’s these little acts of kindness that I’m constantly shown by Jamaican’s that makes my time here so special. Being in a foreign city and not knowing very many people is extremely daunting, but the wonderful people I find myself surrounded by go out of their way to help me integrate into society, which I am so grateful for!
5. Be Cautious But Not Afraid of Kingston
Initially, whenever I told people that I was going to Jamaica for this internship, the first reaction I would receive was, “Be careful; Kingston is very dangerous!” This statement is of course true, but is also true for any other big city in the world. Any large city will have crime, dangerous communities, and unexpected challenges that arise. A misconception I have discovered is that people think that being a “foreigner” in Jamaica automatically makes you a target for crime. However, I have seen that it’s when people stop being conscious of their surroundings, stop using common sense, and start being careless that they may find themselves in adverse situations. I had a memorable conversation with one of my Jamaican co-workers and he told me, “You will be safer walking down the streets than me because everyone is watching you; if anything happened to you, everyone would see and come to help you.” The next time I walked down the street I kept this sentiment in mind, observed, and came to strongly believe it. I had always noticed everyone’s eyes on me, but when I started to meet these on-looking eyes, I was greeted by kind smiles. The more I get to know this community the more I know this statement to hold truth – I’m excited for the next couple months so I can become better acquainted with this city, and country!
6. Don’t Underestimate Hurricane Season
By now I’m sure most people have heard of Hurricane Matthew, however watching a hurricane threat develop from the safety of our homes in Canada is different than being in a country within the hurricanes path. Sometimes media over sensationalizes certain things and under sensationalizes others. Here is my perspective of the events leading up to Hurricane Matthew as a newly arrived Canadian Intern in Jamaica.
The first time I heard talk of the hurricane was a Tuesday night when Christine’s co-worker told her there was likely going to be a storm this weekend. On Wednesday I was attending a policy session and overheard a lady mention that there was now a tropical storm heading towards the island. This was enough to spark my attention as we were just coming up to our 2-week anniversary of arriving to Jamaica. In Canada we deal with blizzards and ice storms – tropical storms are very foreign ground to us! We didn’t even know what a tropical storm entailed, so we started doing research and started watching the storm; we watched the tropical storm become a hurricane, and then watched the hurricane become a category 4, and then a category 5. A category 5 hurricane is the highest-level hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale; it is projected that “catastrophic damage will occur” with a category 4 or 5 hurricane.
Friday was the day that Matthew became a category 5 hurricane and you could feel the stress in the city. Some people think that hurricanes like this are common in “hurricane season”, but the truth is Jamaica has never been hit by a category 4 hurricane or higher, and the last major hurricane to hit the island was in 2004. Some people were shrugging off the threat as hurricane threats come and go and don’t always mean anything will happen. However, others were bunkering down, and truly preparing for a major hurricane. My office shut down early as a safety precaution and I was told to go prepare for the hurricane. This involved stocking up on water, canned foods, candles, batteries, charging electronics, storing water to use for plumbing, taping windows, and moving things away from the windows. In hurricane situations the city preventatively shuts off power to prevent extreme damage, and then turns it back on once the hurricane is gone and the damage to the systems has been fixed. As young Canadians we were watching this unfamiliar situation unfold before us, and diligently went to the stores and prepared for a massive hurricane; it was predicted that the power would be out for 1-week minimum, and quite possibly much longer.
On Saturday we made contact with the High Commission of Canada and were told we needed to get off the island on the next available flight; there was a good chance Jamaica was going to get hit directly by the hurricane, which would mean catastrophic damage and threats to our safety. The High Commission stressed the urgency of the situation and strongly requested that we follow their wishes and leave the island as soon as possible, which would be a 1pm flight on Sunday.
The hurricane was projected to now hit the island Monday morning; Christine and I made the decision to hold off booking a plane ticket and monitor the storm throughout the night. We decided that if the trajectory of the hurricane changed over night we would likely stay in Jamaica, however, if the hurricane warnings stayed the same or got worse, we would follow the wishes of the Canadian Government and leave Jamaica. Early that morning we received news that the hurricane warning for Jamaica was increasing in severity. We made the difficult decision to leave Jamaica for a short period of time, catching the second last flight off the island before the airport closed in preparation of the hurricane.
Once back in Canada we were able to watch the events of the hurricane unfold. Fortunately, the trajectory of the hurricane once again changed and Jamaica did not end up getting hit. However, due to this change in course, Haiti ended up receiving the full force of the storm. My thoughts go out for everyone in Haiti because the destruction and loss they have experienced surpasses my wildest expectations. I can’t imagine what would have happened if the storm would have stayed on course and hit Jamaica – after seeing the capability of this storm I know my time and experience here would have been forever changed.
I am so grateful that Jamaica was spared from this storm and am grateful for the recommendations and support the Canadian Government provided us in regards to evacuating. Maybe, in another life, if we had been here for more than 2 weeks we would have had the capacity to deal with this category 4/5 hurricane … but for now I can only be thankful for the decisions made and with how the events unfolded.
We have now happily returned to Jamaica and are awaiting all the adventures, excitement, and slight challenges ahead!
Until next time,