The questions, the stares, the smirks, the endless yea mon’s (first of all, we don’t use it as abusively as tourists do, and that’s certainly not how we say it, it’s YEA MAN!) are all part of the unique experiences of being a Jamaican passport holder.
I identify fully as a Jamaican and that is something I embrace even more when traveling. I’ve always had a thing for the Dominican Republic, without clear reason. So when I decided to start my travels, it was the first country on my list. (Maybe because it was another Caribbean country, or it could be my past obsession with a former Dominican beauty queen and Miss Universe–Mi know it sound strange, nuh badda judge mi.) But if anything inspired my love for MY country, it was that trip. After all, being Jamaican is not just a privilege, it’s an experience only understood by those who are lucky enough to have it. Believe mi.
I’ve always had a passion for travel, but never really understood how complex it can be. The visas. Sometime we just cyah badda. The paperwork is tedious at times, the money we have to spend, and the risk we take when presenting confirmed airline tickets to some embassies or consulates, without the guarantee of getting the visa. For example, I know someone who wanted to visit Morocco. First of all, at present there isn’t an embassy or consulate for the Kingdom of Morocco in Jamaica, the closest being in St. Lucia. So she contacts the embassy for the visa requirements and follows all instructions, which included a confirmed airline ticket, only to be denied. Another funny one, if Jamaicans need a visa to say, Iceland, they’d have to make an appointment with the embassy in New York. Ridiculous right?
Also, I’ve had to inherit the reputation some ill-willed Jamaicans have created for us who simply want to travel and enjoy life. Traveling especially to USA can be quite daunting if you don’t have a diplomatic passport as a Jamaican. The endless looks of suspicion when going through immigration, and this is not to complain, but one can at least understand that it can be quite off-putting, knowing the treatment you’re predisposed to. For example, going through security at LAX on a recent trip, I unload everything into the trays as required, including this pack of Nerds I’ve been wanting to eat all day. Let me also point out that my passport was unintentionally placed face up in the tray. After going through the screening machine, I see the TSA officer approaching the tray with my things. Much to my surprise, he picks up the pack of Nerds, shakes it twice and THEN opens it, and examines the contents. For a second I thought to myself “wow” what could I possibly disguise as Nerds, and be bold enough to go through security with it. But I couldn’t help but think that had he not seen my passport, would he really feel compelled to open my pack of Nerds? His actions could have been genuinely random but past experiences does shape our perspective, as they rightfully should. On better days, you may get a few suspicious questions or two, and may even be asked where’s the jerked chicken, with a smile. But that is usually to cushion the discomfort from the treatment. I would be suspicious too if nationals from a given country have a reputation of smugglers, so do ya job.
Traveling while Jamaican means you are endlessly enduring the annoying stereotypes. Now I personally used to laugh off certain things, which depicted the Jamaican culture or language being imitated, attempted or as some would call it ridiculed. But trust me, it’s really annoying when you have to deal with it in person, especially when there were some stereotypes you didn’t even know existed about Jamaica. For example, I was surprised when one German guy asked me if we have schools in Jamaica. Mind you he did say it with a straight face, and maybe on another day I would’ve told him suck him madda (btw, never say that to a Jamaican, especially a Jamaican man, its taboo, and may provoke different reactions), but I was so annoyed. Then came the mimicking that I will never get used to no matter what. But in scenarios like those I simply have to see the understandable cultural-insensitivity on their part. Foreigners simply know no better. Though it can be annoying, I can’t be mad, even though I want to be most times.
But there’s a good part that comes with being a Jamaican. People tend to gravitate towards you with an inexplicable fascination. We are a people who stand out, unmatched, unique and bold. This is something I always knew. In fact, it’s engrained in us, but I came to appreciate it more when I was in the Dominican Republic and a tour guide whose English was a 4 on a scale of 10 asked me where I’m from. When I told him, without another word, he started belting out Bob Marley’s “One Love” indistinctly, and for a brief moment I just beamed with pride. To put it into perspective, this guy speaks another language, yet he’s able to sing a popular song by a celebrated Jamaican with such joy.
Another experience which made me put the privilege of traveling a Jamaican in perspective, I’ve met travelers from the popular first world countries: the US, Germany, France, Switzerland, Sweden, you name it. I was the only person from the Caribbean, but more so, a third world country. I didn’t struggle with belonging, because I stood out proudly and was getting all the attention because people were just so fascinated.
Something that has made me appreciate being a Jamaican passport holder even more–though we have to get visas for practically everywhere people actually want to go–no one is imposing a travel band on us. I remember meeting a Iranian-German guy around the same time the POTUS implemented the temporary travel ban on particular middle-eastern countries, and he was explaining that even before the ban, he always was pulled out for special screening. He has the stereotypical “terrorist look”, and though he has a German passport, he still has trouble. For that I’m personally grateful for being Jamaican, because I’m not sure I could deal with that level of stereotype.
In conclusion, all the questions about weed, Usain Bolt and Bob Marley aside, I’m quite content being a Jamaican, and nothing beats meeting another Jamaican while you’re in another country. We can’t hide, you just know your people when you see them. Some personality traits are uniquely Jamaican, believe it or not, and that’s why I said it’s more than just a passport, a nationality and an identity. It’s an experience.
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