Driving on the Left and Other Adjustments to Life in Jamaica

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.

Jamaican money
Jamaican money

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.

10 comments on “Driving on the Left and Other Adjustments to Life in Jamaica

  1. This post amused me. I remember always feeling like I was sweating in Taiwan and everyone looked chill. I also had the money issue, not being able to produce it quickly enough. I wanted to look as if I’d been there for awhile and knew my stuff. Sometimes I just let them count it for me. They were honest about it though.

    You must share more stories like this. It’s funny. I can see you walking about and trying to feel your way around; a foreigner in your native land. 🙂

  2. I had to laugh when i read your comment. Yes, it’s all about trying to look like you’ve been there for ages when they can spot you a mile away.
    I will and I’ll use the foreigner in your native land as the headline. Thanks, Totsy!

  3. Oh this is so funny! I can understand the confusions with currency but sweating? What a marker! 🙂

  4. Marcia, I havn’t thought of that, “Look left, look right, look left again…” that was taught to me as a child in Australia for at least half a lifetime, until you reminded me of it now! It’s the same experience for me in reverse, since coming to live here in Chile a year and a half ago. Currency is also something that took me quite a while to get used to, too. I think I’m fine now, though!

  5. Isn’t it interesting how those expressions we learned as children are embedded into our memories? I’m glad I was able to remind you to Look left, look right.

  6. Hey,

    You have written an amazing post.Driving at left is sometimes very difficult especially when you not used to it.


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