But this time it feels completely disingenuous.
Here are things I did not take pictures of:
On the 2-hour drive from the airport in Montego Bay to Negril, we passed through six or seven dirty, dusty, crowded, and littered villages and towns. We passed farm fields where skinny cows and goats grazed with ropes tied around their necks, staked into the ground, and horses grazed in the roughage on the side of the road. Roadside markets, ramshackle wood huts, many painted pretty colors but others just bare wood or scrap metal. Manufacturing facilities and schools, with barbed wire on the tops of the walls surrounding the grounds. Nearly everywhere we looked we saw trash, litter, rubbish, debris. Plastic bags, water bottles, beer bottles, car parts, strewn in streams and along the side of the road.
At least half of the locals on the beach who offered to sell us fresh fruits, juices, hats, sarongs, jewelry, or wood carvings also quietly offered us ganja, x, or even cocaine. It wasn’t terribly difficult to tune out, of course, with the heavenly colors of the diamond blue sea and clear blue sky taking up at least half of our viewshed.
But it was glaring, nonetheless. Like thorns on a rose bush in full bloom.
I did take a few pictures of gorgeous and interesting-looking Jamaican natives. So many of them are stunningly beautiful people. One well-dressed, coiffed professional woman even had a manicure matching her aqua patent-leather high heels. Some carried gorgeous Michael Kors and LV (knock-off?) handbags.
But I took no pictures of the many folks lining the sidewalks who were unclean and missing most of their teeth, smoking.
Another thing I simply could not photograph were the animals. Jamaicans mostly expect their pet cats and dogs to scrounge for food rather than feeding them regular meals. The plaintive howling and whiny, snarling, fighting barks of the dogs at night is more than a little bit disruptive. It is almost sickening. Although the two conditionally-friendly German Shepherds guarding our Charela Inn had relatively healthy-looking coats and appeared well taken care of. Only one of them was a little thin under her ribs.
The horses offered up like toys for rides on the beach were gaunt, clearly dehydrated, and sway-backed. One little buckskin had a severe open wound on his rump, a bite from another horse or a wild dog I guessed, that I couldn’t even look at. I carried home so much guilt for not buying that horse some food or a bucket of water.
In the larger towns the alleys between buildings have a square-bottomed, open concrete trench running down them toward the nearest river. Full of trash.
Interestingly enough, the beaches and yards around the resorts are meticulously swept clean of leaves, seaweed, and other debris early in the morning and again before dinnertime. The perfectly manicured walkways and sandy areas feel and look as clean as the floors and carpets in our house. But the leaves and other things swept away are disposed of each night in black plastic garbage bags thrown across the road into the brush to rot under the hot sunshine. Plastic bags. To contain the seagrape leaves swept off the sand. To give us tourists a completely false sense of immaculate serenity.
Even though the only place one can find true, uninterrupted serenity is far beneath the surface of the sea in the silent company of delightful critters like this stealthy hermit crab.
This issue disturbs me to the point of sleeplessness. See, underneath the sugarcane and wild tangle of tropical weeds, the island is very rocky. The island lacks good soil to cultivate for agricultural purposes. Why are they not composting to create more fertile soil? Why are they not encouraging scientists to develop affordable desalination technology and reverse greenhouses? Negril has a Burger King and free Wi-Fi in almost every chicken shack & beer joint, yet they fail to improve their agricultural resources and celebrate local foods. Instead they import most of their produce, primarily (I believe) because the large resorts and hotels insist on serving a diverse exotic (non-local) menu to satiate the unreasonable expectations of foreign travelers.
My ruminations from this trip remind me of why my observations in Ghana in college made me angry. Cell phones and text messaging were all the rage in Ghana – as in the US – in the ’90’s, but they still ran channels of sewage down the roadsides into natural streams which fed their drinking water sources. Why do developing communities adopt technologies of convenience but not of sustainability? They want to look cool but not be healthy. They fiercely challenge their children to concentrate 100% of their waking hours to studying math, science, social studies, and literature, but we hear that their employers want to hire graduates from US or European schools. Even though it sounds like the Jamaican educational system is actually more difficult than ours. They encourage higher education, charge for it, and mothers work 3 and 4 jobs 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, to pay for their children’s education. But the country does not have enough good-paying jobs. So their highly educated young people are working in resort kitchens and hotel front desks, driving taxis, selling ganja. They want to connect with the modern world through Facebook and Twitter but they don’t care about protecting the natural environment or their animals. Yeah, yeah, I know: “First World Problems.”
Like do I have my perfect Blue Mountain coffee on the beach or by the pool?
So, by the miracle of Catholic guilt, I feel responsible. By sharing only my prettiest pictures, I’m just perpetuating the false image the Jamaican tourism industry is promoting. I turned my back (and my camera) away from the ugliness, the trash, the poverty, the sickness.
By expressing these thoughts, I’m afraid my friends who aren’t as fortunate to travel as much as I do will think I’m complaining or being ungrateful. Yes, the surroundings were generally beautiful. Yes, we were lucky to travel to the Caribbean again this year. And yes, I’m still looking forward to our next trip.
But maybe next year, instead of traveling there, maybe we bring one of our Caribe friends’ kids here. I don’t know, it’s lofty and again feels somewhat arrogant, but our friend Marcia’s daughter Moesha is just graduating from “Fifth Form” this year. She might like to study law or nursing. And she’s in the top five in her class of 40. She would like to go to college here in the United States so that she can be a top choice for one of the select high-paying jobs back in Jamaica someday. Honestly she wants to go to MIT, but we’re lobbying to get her to apply to Michigan or CMU. I’d like to get her to apply to the college of natural resources at U of M, followed by a degree in civil engineering so she can take back home an understanding of how to manage refuse and water runoff. Or to MSU to study agriscience. Or Grand Valley to major in Hospitality & Tourism Management and learn about how protecting the environment and utilizing local food products is a way to revive Jamaica’s tourism industry.
All of this probably sounds uber-pretentious. I’m feeling the same way I did during my trip to Ghana in 2000. Like I don’t really know anything but I’m projecting my own ideals – and judgment – on another culture I hardly know at all. What do I know about the agricultural potential of an island like Jamaica? What do I really know about environmental protection or education? Maybe our government has it all wrong. Maybe recycling programs are a facade and landfills are just concentrated toxic sinkholes that will someday make the Earth implode. Maybe modern sewage and water treatment facilities are the real cause of cancer. Maybe our educational system is indeed superior to the rest of the world. I don’t know.
What I do know is that no matter how frequently or far I travel, my favorite place on earth will always be the shores of Lake Michigan. Ungroomed. Wild. Unspoiled. Perfect. (Except during that one week in May when there’s a plague of black flies.) I also know that water sold in individual disposable bottles is the bane of the natural environment’s existence and I will never use one again if I can help it. (We take empty Nalgene or metal bottles with us when we travel and fill them at the airport. Or we just drink beer. Draft beer to conserve on packaging, whenever possible. It’s only the responsible thing to do.) I also know that I love local produce when it’s in season more than any other food I could eat. Especially Grand Traverse peaches in late summer. Mostly, though, I know that God made this amazing place infinitely beautiful. For us. And we need to do whatever we can to honor it so that our children and their children can obsess over their own carefully framed photos of these beautiful sunsets and oceans.