I have one essential piece of travel advice: enter without any expectations. This tactic will permit you to wipe your mind of any stereotypes and be more open to experiences. Naturally, before visiting a different country, everyone seems to have advice— mostly the places to avoid and things you shouldn’t do. All useful advice, that I often take with a grain of salt… not entirely ignored but at its core, it is crucial to be aware of your surroundings and never put yourself in tricky places.
That being said, as I boarded my flight to Jamaica, accompanied by my close friend Idiatou, nicknamed Chum, I had zero expectations and loads of excitement. Contrary to the usual input, I had only heard positive stories about Jamaica, and after a particularly rough beginning of the year, we were in need of positive vibes. I sat next to a burly man, soaked in cheap cologne and dripping sweat. I said my hello and set up my nest, prepping music and pulling out my sweater. As I arranged myself, a gay flight attendant, who was sweet and noticeably flamboyant swooped down to our seats and asked if we needed anything. “No, thank you,” we all responded and resumed our activities. The flight attendant roamed around a few times and the snickering began. I began to hear comments about how gay he was and how ridiculous he looked/acted. The giant next to me tapped my forearm and pointed at the flight attendant and hypothetically asked with a heavy accent, “why is he like that?” a question that led him to chuckle and shake his head. I could feel my blood pressure rising at his ignorance and intolerance, and responded rather rudely, “who cares what he does?” He didn’t speak to me again. Many times before, I had heard Jamaica was an extremely homophobic country, often considered to be in the top ten of the world. I tried not to let this single experience spoil my mood and fell asleep rather pleasantly.
After a rather long trajectory, in which we ended up crossing the entire island with a charming and knowledgeable guide, we arrived to the sunny beaches of Negril. As our taxi neared our hotel, we drove near the gleaming ocean, immediately relaxing my body and mind. I was ready. The heat was scorching and unforgiving, making us sweat almost instantly. We checked in, changed into our bathing suits and walked to the shore, a short 1 minute walk. On this short walk, I noticed the glaring stares of the Jamaican men. Granted, Chum is a tall gracious being, but this stare was inextinguishable. I shrugged it off and categorized it as just another form of harassment that we deal with on a daily basis. Who cares, we’re at the beach!
Our day consisted of relaxing, drinking, and speaking with the locals. A playful flirting here and there, led to a more insistent questioning about our lives and invitations to partying. No, thank you, we would repeat. And I wish to say it ended there… but the harassment only aggravated me more by the day, because a simple walk along the shore became a journey of rejections, no thank you’s, and most ironically, receiving insults for being rude and not answering their questions. Can we just walk in peace by the beach? It began to drive me crazy, I dreaded walking anywhere outside of our hotel, after a particularly frightening encounter with a man who did not like our response to his catcalling and drove back in his motorcycle to ask us, “if we didn’t like black men.”
I came to realize all of the people that had spoken wonders of Jamaica were either men or had traveled with family. My biggest fear was leaving the country without wanting to return, perhaps it was just a few of the locals who were hardened by the thousands of tourists that flocked to their shores and demanded attention. So, I shifted my mindset, I came here to relax and relax I will. Was I succumbing to the harassment? No, but I wouldn’t be changing the entire social construct of Jamaica in one week, so I focused on the beauty of the environment, with its rich colors and blooming plants, the ever present sounds of reggae, with its melodic beats and poetry about love and living life. I eased in to a schedule of waking up early, eating abundantly, and planning to soak up the sun and sea water. Most notably, sharing a space with Chummy and having heart to heart convos.
We were there for a week, and when I reflect on the trip, I see it as a space where Chum and I gained more closure. Would I go back? Maybe, but accompanied by a male.