During the thirty-odd years that I lived abroad, I returned once, sometimes twice a year, to Jamaica so I never considered myself a stranger to how things worked. I realize now that those fleeting visits really never prepared me for the reality of everyday living.
One of the things I knew would take a period of adjustment is driving. As a former British colony, Jamaica drives on the left. I had just started driving my mom’s car – from the house to the gate and occasionally to church – when I left here in the 70s. I matured as a driver in the US and was always too nervous that I’d end up on the ‘wrong’ side to drive during trips home. I still haven’t driven yet, but I feel as if my mind has re-adjusted sufficiently.
Walking, however, is a different matter. I attempted to cross the street recently, not at a traffic light, and instead of looking left, I looked right. Thankfully, the street was clear. Before I cross the street now, I find myself repeating a little ditty we learned in primary school, Look left, look right, look left again before crossing the street.
In Jamaica, the currency is the dollar. It’s easy enough to identify the bills – each ($50, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000) is a different color. It’s the coins that confuse me. The $10 coin is silver and about the same size as the U.S. quarter, except that the edges are rippled and it feels lighter. Somehow, though, my mind thinks it should be a quarter. So a few days ago when I needed a $10 to pay for a purchase, I fumbled in my purse looking for one – I had several but couldn’t figure out which it was without pouring everything out on the counter so I gave the a $50 bill instead.
For each US dollar I convert, I get about J$86 and I find myself always doing a quick conversion to see if the price I’m being charged is more or less than what I would have paid in the States.
There’s a 17.5% tax on purchases. Some places charge, some don’t. I suspect most of those who collect the taxes rarely pay it over to the government as that’s now on the table for reform.
Checking out prices and wages, I wonder how people survive. The minimum wage is J$5,500 (approximately US$65) weekly. A 10-year old used car can run J$1,000,000 (US$12,000), before insurance and licensing, and gas is about J$110 a gallon. In some areas, a modest 2-bedroom house can cost up to $7,000,000 (about US$80,000). Speaking with friends, they tell me they need to take home between J$200-300,000 a month to cover their expenses.
The complaint I hear most often is how unpredictable electricity costs are. Bills vary significantly from one month to the next even when usage remains constant.
The good thing though, is that now more and more people are looking into alternative energy. Several companies that sell solar water heater, solar panels, etc., have sprung up. And some banks have jumped on the bandwagon offering loans to homeowners who want to go solar.
Frankly, I believe farming is the way to go. Those who have the land space should plant what they need. When I was little, my grandmother always had a garden in her backyard with bananas, breadfruit, plantains, ackee, lime, coconut and pimento trees, and she always had pigs and chickens running around.
I’ve often wondered how people know that I’ve just arrived. One of my cousins, who lived abroad for about 50 years, related an incident that happened to her sometime ago. She was chatting with a taxi driver when he asked where she was from. She replied in her best Jamaican accent that she was Jamaican. No, he said, You’re a Jamerican (a Jamaican who lives in the US). I’m Jamaican, she insisted. No, he replied, look at your skin. Look how you’re sweating. Jamaicans don’t sweat like that! He’s right. Despite the heat, I don’t notice anyone sweating as much as I’ve been doing. Whenever I see anyone sweating (or glowing as one of my friend calls it), I smile. It’s the ice in us that’s melting, another friend tells me.