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Londoner in Jamrock

16 Mar 2017

Jamaica is not all blue skies and palm trees. One of my favourite Jamaican sayings, “see me and come live with me”, means to know someone on face value and to know them intimately are two different things. The same can be said for the island.

Just because you visit Ocho Rios or Montego Bay for a couple of weeks each year and eat ackee and saltfish every Sunday doesn’t mean you have any experience of what it means to live in Jamaica.

You know the cardboard cut-out experience fed to you by foreign all-inclusives. You’ve appreciated snapshots of the island’s stunning scenery and if you’re lucky, you know what a mango should taste like. But yuh nuh know bout box food, bag juice, bad mind, zinc fence, true poverty, the sweetness of custard-apples and the bitterness of papaya leaf tea, market day, what it feels to like to live in the same country your ancestors were enslaved, what it feels like to have no water for weeks, what it feels like to be truly grateful when all you have to claim is life. You might not have experienced the myriad angles of the place’s silencing beauty – the lush green mountains of Portland, the desert-like, cacti-dotted planes of Saint Elizabeth and the rainbow of blues from sky to sea in Westmoreland.

“swapping London for Jamaica is like spinning a dial, you move from monochrome to sun-emblazoned life in technicolour”

I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about Jamaica, nor do I necessarily want to. I don’t know all the facets of the island nor do I claim the nationality but I have peeked into the culture enough to know swapping London for Jamaica is like spinning a dial, you move from monochrome to sun-emblazoned life in technicolour; life in its rawest, realest, most painful and most exquisite form.

When I left my job as a broker five years ago and the humidity hit my face outside Sangsters airport, I didn’t know what to expect other than sunbathing, rum cream and Red Stripe.

I had been cushioned by the materialism and norms of my home-town for so long, I wasn’t prepared for the situations which surfaced. The island blew me open hard and fast like hurricane Matthew and I found myself there, in the jewelled fragments left behind.

Gratitude was one of the first things I learned. Not the rehearsed thankfulness you’ve read about in a self-help book or practise daily in a journal, but the kind of gratitude I saw in my friend’s tear-washed eyes at the site of a car accident.

Anya was still wearing a back brace, a result from the car crash she’d been in less than two weeks before, when she looked at me from the back seat of a taxi in excruciating pain and said “Jessica. I am still here.” These are things that happen in the frenzied chaos of Jamaica. Life is not guaranteed, so you don’t take it for granted or wish it away; you clutch it with both hands like the precious entity it is. You attempt to treat each day as a cloudless sky of opportunity and if you can’t, at the very least, you give thanks for the chance to be blessed enough to be a part of it.

“I’ve had friends turn on me in Jamaica quicker than the weather on a London summer’s day.”

Not every lesson is one of upliftment though. There is a reason, for example, why phrases like “reddy eyed”, “ginal” and “dutty badmind” are a part of the vernacular. There are Jamaicans who will hate you even before they’ve met you, for reasons they themselves cannot fathom. I’d known the lyrics to Chronixx’s ‘Behind Curtain’ when the song came out but it was only once I moved to the island that I understood the meaning:

“Best friend a come fi take your life
A the worst thing you could ever see…
How can a man weh you a ‘par with from you born
Turn round be your enemy.”

I’ve had friends turn on me in Jamaica quicker than the weather on a London summer’s day. It was also there that a boyfriend attacked me. It wasn’t a coincidence and it probably had much to do with the stinking hangover of slavery.

Jamaica teaches you. In the words of Erykah Badu “I picks my friends like I pick my fruit”, and I do not reciprocate hate, but practice one love. As Buddha did and rastas do, I love others from a space of infinitude, knowing we are all one and the same; matter which matters.  This doesn’t mean you must take your backstabbing neighbour for a drink or share your plate of jerk chicken with the envious skettle from down the lane, but you can still love them from afar, as you must love yourself.

So, why live there? Why not crawl back into the cocooned convenience of London? I do, frequently. Yet, the island hasn’t lost its allure because Jamaica is like a rubix cube; many-sided and difficult to grasp. Just when you think you have the place pinned down, it escapes you. You cross rivers bare-footed at the outskirts of the city and experience acoustic sets that hush your worries. You meet friends who become your family. You start falling in love over roasted plantain, amidst a backdrop of turquoise waters. You wake up one serene morning and pick your own breakfast, fresh from the plant. Someone hears you humming at lunch and an hour later, you are gazing over the San San hills of Port Antonio with a mic in your hand at one of the island’s most iconic recording studios, standing in the spot where Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Amy Winehouse have all created albums. They invite you back.

After you have been forced to raise your vibration, learned that your own company can be the best company, spent a morning admiring the blue line where the sky meets the water, been hushed by a sunset or meditated on a mountain’s magnitude, you recall the things which make your heart sing. Things you thought about before life told you where you needed to be by the age of 30, that you must get on the property ladder, that you ought to be married by now. There in those sublime, still spaces you start remembering who you are.

Perhaps because the island has so little artifice, it reflects back to you a purer version of yourself. I began writing. Unceasingly and voraciously. I wrote differently to before. I wrote from a place of unchecked authenticity, pouring myself onto the page. The response was different. I won a Penguin Random House competition and now I’m working on a collection of poems, The Bulldog and the Hummingbird, which flits like me between London and Jamaica.

I love London. This relentless, ever-changing city is my home. But as one of my friends, a Kingstonian rasta named Ricky often reminds me, “ain’t no weh quite like yard.”