When you think of irie Jamaica, the last thing that comes to mind is probably a gawky preteen. Middle school is by far the most awkward time in a person’s life and I should know since not only did I live through it but I experience it everyday being a teacher. One good thing that happened during my graceless years was going to Jamaica in 7th grade for Spring Break with my family and some friends. We stayed at an all-inclusive hotel in Montego Bay. I didn’t know what to expect but I remember being amazed by the crystal clear water that was actually blue, like in pictures or coloring books. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. There, of course, were swimming pools that I spent most of my time in, plus I needed to get a good tan so the kids at school knew I went somewhere for vacation.
One day on our trip we left the hotel and took a tour towards the outskirts of the city. I remember seeing the shacks that people had built out of scraps of metal and siding. At the time I didn’t know any better and assumed that it wouldn’t be too bad living in a shack in a country that is so beautiful and with great weather. I contemplated becoming a beach bum myself as long as I wouldn’t have to have such bitter cold winters.
We arrived at a camp where people had pop-up stands to sell crafts to the tourists that would pass by. This was the first time I learned about bargaining. I saw the vendors state their crafts were for one price and the Americans responding with some sort of deal, like “Give me 2 for the price of one”, or “Okay, I’ll pay that but then throw in one of those.” It is still a foreign concept to me, especially when you are dealing with people that have so much less than you do. I think we ended up buying some small trinkets to take home but the vivid pictures in my mind of the country side are the only souvenirs that have survived.
Once we returned to the hotel, we saw these banana boats which were inflatable tubes that looked like a giant, yellow banana that 4 or 5 people could ride as it was pulled behind a speed boat. We talked with the men in charge of the boat and said we would like to ride. They informed us that they needed to fill the boat up with gas and then they would take us out. In the meantime, we took a seat on the banana and waited. We waited and waited for probably close to 45 minutes for the men to come back which gave us plenty of time to make up a song to the tune of “Frere Jacques”. It went a little something like this: “Where is Boat Man? Where is Boat Man? I don’t know, I don’t know….” Anyway, eventually they came back and we started our ride. It was very bumpy and we did wipe out once. We were far from an even beach so there were a lot of trees, rocks and loose branches in the water. We swam to shore so we could get back on the boat. When I attempted to step up on the shore, I stepped on either a rock or branch and it cut my pinky toe. I wasn’t bleeding too much, or at least the water kept washing it away so I couldn’t tell what it was really like until we got back.
Many of the things I remember about Jamaica was the food. Now I’m not talking about tropical fruits and jerk chicken. I remember the buffet style food that we had at the restaurant. First off, let me tell you, if you are looking for ketchup be ready to be surprised. The ketchup there tastes like nothing I have ever tasted before. It was overly sweet and had no hint of tomato like flavor or acidity. Strange. Also, my favorite of all the was cream puffs that were shaped like swans. These were not only dessert but toys that you could eat! What could be more exciting than that!
Well, after digesting dinner and being hopped up on sugar from eating too many swans, we would work off our energy before bed with the kid’s disco. Every night around 7 or 8 pm they would play family friendly music that kids and parents could go on stage and dance to. Now I will admit that I am a pretty good dancer so this was something that I really enjoyed. I even remember one night a lady from Jamaica was teaching me how to swing my hips to the reggae beats. Maybe this is what Jamaica is supposed to be like, I thought.
The last full day we had in Jamaica we spent hanging by the pool, soaking up some sun and I knew I wanted to get my last souvenir: getting my hair braided. Nothing is more cliche than coming back from a trip to the Caribbean with your hair braided, and since I was 12, that was exactly what I needed to do. I can still remember it now how I sat on a crate with the noonday sun beating down on my shoulders and very white scalp. The lady put in product that later took a few days to wash out, and started to braid. The ends were fastened with beads, of course, and I kept them in for over a week. That might not have been the best choice for a greasy 7th grader to do, but that is what happened and it helped me be the cool kid in school, at least for a few days.