Why this blog of questions?
This is the story of visiting a place without doing any research or proper trip planning, and watching that trip seed the very idea for the blog you’re reading. The story of a girl who is enamored with the way people give meaning to the world. The ways places are built, the materials used, and the governments in place to impose social order. The symbols, myths, and lore people draw from to articulate their history, legitimize their societal norms, and endear the mysteries of the universe with wondrous human logic. A girl who despite all these interests, couldn’t find the right outlet to marry them with her wanderlust. This story begins with a brief weekend in Jamaica.
When a friend invited me to visit her, I asked few questions. As a general rule of thumb, I’m down to go anywhere I have a friend. Oh, you’re down to host and let me crash?! *Tramples children and seniors to get to a flight booking situation* This would come after many years of eschewing any opportunity to visit the Caribbean. The region never called me. Everyone I knew who visited for leisure did so to barricade themselves onto all-inclusive resorts, to beach bum, and drink cocktails with umbrellas. #NoShade. I can appreciate the value of unwinding and beach bumming, but nah. Going to Jamaica for that purpose had never risen to any level of travel priority for me. Visiting a friend in the countryside away from the main resort towns though? That was a trip that called my name.
Unsurprisingly, I had no idea what to expect. I had never visited an island before. I didn’t even know what we’d be doing besides hanging out in the town where she lived. This is the kind of friend though that would have a plan and swoop me up in her bosom. And I’m the kind of friend who easily toggles between being the alpha planner leader person, or in instances such as these, completely go-with-the-flow follow-the-leader type. I worried about nothing and did whatever she told me to do, including make the obligatory shopping runs to bring her all the American goodies she dreamed of, but couldn’t find or afford in Jamaica. Things like good quality aluminum foil, olive oil, and gummy bears (and you know not just ANY gummy bears, but the gold bag joints). I bought the ticket just a few weeks before taking off and then before I knew it, I was en route with the strongest most poisonous mosquito repellant I could find, because you know, Chikungunya.
Needless to say, it was a wonderful short trip. The country is beautiful, lush, and unassuming. The first thing I saw when stepping out of Norman Manley Airport in Kingston was a giant roadside billboard with Usain Bolt’s face and a restaurant selling Jamaican patties. How appropriate that the two most prominent references I have for Jamaica are the first things I encounter leaving the airport. Yes, I said to my friend. I will definitely indulge in that greasy yummy chicken patty. And ditto Usain, you run this country.
It dawned on me that I had never before visited an all-black English speaking country. Why did this stand out to me? Nor had I ever experienced island life. What was it about island life that was so distinct yet elusive to describe? People of all complexions were around and even upon opening my mouth to speak, I was not a foreign freak show. Being American didn’t make me a novelty, or anything special for that matter. Why was my foreignness not so foreign? And why was I surprised by it? On the road to the countryside, I noticed sugarcane fields – huge open clearings of stalks as tall as Yao Ming. I wondered, dear god, is this where the ancestors used to cultivate the land, under the baking sun?? I had flashes of images and texts I’ve read about the brutality of slavery in other countries and the physical intensity of cultivating sugarcane. My eyes watered as we passed that field. How much do farmworkers make to cull these fields today?
Do you see a pattern emerging here with all these questions? The biggest question came while I was standing at the bus stop with my friend. And by bus stop, it’s more like a semi-formal transit network of van drivers and taxis zipping along the roads picking up passengers at non-descript locations that you’d only know if you were a local. The roads, or what’s left of them in certain places, are pretty awful. Been on a kiddie roller coaster before? Imagine that, but without the joy. Friend and I are waiting at the bus stop. Two guys come walking up the road, one carrying a shovel, the other a tin bucket. They stop at a pothole, pour the contents of the bucket into the hole and then spread it around with a shovel. At this point, I’m finding all of this quite riveting so I ask my friend what-the-what is happening. Her story begins with ‘girl lemme tell you!’ The short story according to her, is that these local guys take to the streets filling the potholes as a hustle. They mix their own concrete and then wait for drivers passing through to slip them tips for providing a collective public service: making the roads a little less hellish for everyone.
This is the moment the idea for this blog was born. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. This story, the observation of something so seemingly fleeting, the novelty of it to me as a visitor, and all the subsequent questions it elicited is exactly the thing that would marry my interests with my wanderlust. I wanted to know more about the phenomenon I had just observed. I wanted to research who was responsible for maintaining the roads here. I wanted to know if the hustle they were running was legal or frowned upon by local government. I wanted to ask more people what they thought of it. I wondered if this was purely about making quick money or if there was some deeper community ownership thing at play. In America, the land of the hustle, no one took to the streets to fix annoying potholes; instead, people passively complain about government being inefficient and inattentive to their individual needs. I also noticed the roads in other parts of the country where tourism is more plentiful; well those roads were newly paved. Not a Nobel worthy discovery, but again, it only elicited more questions in my mind.
What normally happened next in my travel routine (pre-blog) was that I’d take all these questions home after a trip and sit on them. They never quite go away, but they never grow into anything more than casual curious musings. No follow up, no answers, no nothing. I might share them with friends who find them interesting. In this case, I might’ve hit up Wikipedia to learn who Norman Manley is (the namesake for the airport), or the government of Jamaica (to quickly scan for tidbits about public works), or slavery in the Caribbean (to ferret out stories about slaves working in sugarcane fields). As noted at the beginning of this post however, I have been searching for the right outlet to marry my interest in deeply understanding people and places, with my insatiable desire to see as much as I can.
The question about Jamaican roads though has lingered and blossomed into this blog; a repository for these questions, an outlet for me to share them with others, and a space where I attempt to collect information and arrive at answers. Above all, this is my laboratory for self-reflection, exploration, storytelling, and rigorous inquiry. So.
Thank you for stopping by.
And thank you Jamaica for leaving me with questions I couldn’t shake.[inquire] Can you remember a trip that evoked lots of big and small questions for you? What were those questions? Did you seek out answers from people you met along the way or from an internet search?
A wanderlusting intellectual millennial on a journey to let my curiosity get the best of me everywhere I go. I enjoy traveling and being immersed in the unfamiliar. I love cultural anthropology, urban planning, and pretending to know other languages. A dancer by training and a social scientist by dreaming; born in Washington DC, raised in Maryland, eight years a New Yorker, and a serial hobbyist. My current obsession is hoola hooping. I even do gigs and take my hoop when I travel. Fo'reals.