Jamaica is not a single story!


This is the second in a series of blogs as part of the #BloggingAbroadBlogChallenge I was given the prompt about the Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story“.

http://bloggingabroad.org/blog-challenge
http://bloggingabroad.org/blog-challenge

I want you to close your eyes and think about what Jamaica means to you?   Does it mean fruity rum drinks?  The sand and sea?  Does it mean jerk chicken and fish fry?  Does it mean posh resorts and craft markets?  Does it mean high crime rates and marijuana smoking in public? Does it mean poverty and dirt roads?  Does it mean children in no shoes going to school?  Does it mean low education levels?  To me Jamaica is all of this and so much more.  As a joke this is considered Posh Corps in Peace Corps lingo.  Site envy is a thing among volunteers and many seriously think we spend our days at the beach and our nights drinking rum.  Sometimes that happens, most often we spend it trying to make some sense of how a country that by all outward appearances is rich and wonderful could be so impoverished and hard.

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You see when you come here as a tourist, you are limited by what the leaders want you to see.  They want you to take back stories of fun and fabulous times.  They do not want you to talk about crime rates, accidents or poverty, they wish you not to see any of that.  This is true for most tourist destinations.  You see only the fun and beauty, but you miss the poverty and struggles.  This is the single story that most people have of Jamaica.  It is where Bob Marley came from, Reggae, Rum and Ganga, beaches and beauty.  But Bob Marley could not have been such an icon without the struggles of crime, poverty and despair.  His music would not still haunt us to this day if he had no message to share.  The movie Cool Runnings, as silly as it is and hyped up Hollywood overdone, it still is a story of the great spirit of the Jamaican people.  To face such adversity and still get back up, only a people who have struggled their whole life could do that.

The diversity of the people here is similar to almost everywhere else.  You have rich, you have poor, you have a struggling middle class.   You also have criminals and scammers.  What you do not have is a single story.  You cannot say you know Jamaica if you come here and spend the entire time at the all-inclusive resort.  You meet Jamaicas, sure, but they are working and conforming to standards that are set forth for them.  It is a job for them to interact with you, not to get personal and share their true feelings.  They smile as though they are having a great time, but maybe they have a sick child back home and cannot wait to return their family.  They might agree with whatever you say, but deep down they know you have no idea what happens outside the walls of the resorts.  Even if you leave the resort it is typically by charter bus or taxi where you are taken to specific locations.  You will not be taken to the small school that has children who have not eaten since breakfast and will not likely eat until nearly bedtime when they get home.   They will not take you up into communities of captured land, where the electricity is tiefed from JPS and the cost is put back upon those who have legal electricity.  They do not take you into areas where scammer are polishing shiny new cars and looking for their next victim.  They do not show you how, much of Jamaica lives.

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You will not see domino games that go on into the wee hours of the night, often ending in a drunken brawl.  You will not see a dead yard (ded yaad) or meet a local family (yaadies).  You may see a few Jamaicans along the roadside bagging up trash and debris, but you will not stop and share a drink with them.  No you are going to be shown only what they want you as a tourist to see, what you came to see.  What you came to see is not really Jamaica, it is the brochure you bought when you purchased your tickets.  Not one place on this beautiful Earth will you ever see the real “” in a brochure.  You see what you want to see.  It keeps you coming back, because, hey you are on vacation and you paid to live in paradise for a week and forget about the worries of the world.  Sadly the worries of the world might be a direct result of you ability to forget about them.  How do you think you can find such a wondrous way to forget if not at a cost to someone/something else?  Do not kid yourself the cost is so much higher than any of us would ever want to pay.

The beaches in Jamaica are mostly pay beaches.  The spots on the river are starting to be the same.  This equates to pushing the poor away from their own inheritance of a beautiful sea and fresh water resting place.  Imagine if you had to pay $100 every time you wanted to relax with your family?  How do you feel now that you have to pay for day passes or a yearly pass to most state and federal parks in America?  I resent it.  That land is owned by us, why do we, the taxpayer have to pay?  The same is happening all over Jamaica and it is frustrating.

So now go back to your original thoughts on Jamaica, but add watching the catch from the fishermen coming in, cooking fresh fish on the beach on a Sunday morning, buying produce from the farmers at the market, buying callaloo from the Rasta peddling it from his back or bicycle.  Imagine instead of fruity drinks an icy cold Dragon Stout blended with some Foska Oats, peanuts and Supligen vanilla milk, this is called  Strong Back and if a man is drinking it run ladies run!   Imagine lazily floating down the river without a care in the world, looking at the canopy of fruiting trees overhead.

Imagine the back breaking work in the fields to bring in the harvest just to make enough money to pay the children’s school fees.  Imagine being a small child in an overcrowded, hot classroom that is not separated by actual walls but by chalk boards, imagine being the teachers trying to talk over the noise from the other classrooms.  Now imagine all of this hardship and struggle and you still having a smile on your face?  Why?  Because Jamaica, No problem, mon!  It is really hard to keep a Jamaican from enjoying the simple pleasures in life, because for many of them, it is the only pleasures they have ever known.

All the World is a Stage: Global Citizenship, understanding our roles.


This is part of 2017 #BloggingAbroad Blog Challenge.  For the next 10 weeks I will be given a blog prompt to inspire me to dig deep into my cultural experiences and find a way to best present the idea.  This is the first challenge the theme is Global Citizenship.

As a PCV I am in a unique position. I wanted to experience life outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to understand the struggles that others go through that I have never experiences. I wanted a greater understanding. I got a greater understanding. Not only of life outside of my comfort zone but of life in a completely different perspective.

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Global citizenship, to me, means to be able to see outside of your own life and understand outside perspectives. It is about letting go of your prejudices and finding a way to understand the struggles and joys of others. It is about understanding relationship and understanding yourself. Once you peel back the layers you are left bare and exposed. You are left uncomfortable, but this is where you grow. This is where a new way of seeing something happens. You have to peel back your history, your belief system and your prejudices and get to the core of what makes you, well, you. You have to know yourself, even to the most uncomfortable level. Once you get to that stage, then, and only then, can you begin to understand the perspectives of others.

Last night is a perfect example, please understand that I am trying to explain a very personal experience and my interpretation of the experience, because no matter what I do, I will never understand the struggle that are part of everyday life for a Woman of Color (WOC). I have spent enough time with my new host “mom” to be comfortable asking questions that might not be appropriate in any other situation. We have been walking almost daily since I moved in and we have deep discussions about things I am trying to understand. Sometimes my understanding is quite painfully incorrect, but it does not harm our relationship, which I am thankful for.

Back to last night….. My host mom was showing me how her hair got ripped out in the back because she had some braided extensions put in for the Holiday season. She actually hates that, she prefers her hair natural, but she tells me it took a long time to get there. You see there is big money to be made in WOC hair products. Straighteners, oils, extensions, wigs, you name it, the majority of WOC buy it. Why? Because since the time of slavery WOC were told that their hair was not beautiful, their skin was not beautiful their,,, whatever was not acceptable. (These are my host mom’s words and my understanding of this.) I get it, we see it all the time. The models that are WOC are often shown with long straightened hair or short straightened hair, or sometimes shaved bald, but almost never natural. Most stars are the same way, unless the show/movie is somehow mocking them. Back in the 70’s/early 80’s we have a few shows showing natural hair, but for the most part, in my lifetime, it has been hair made to look like white women hair. There I said it!

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I actually understand this personally as I have always been told my hair could only be done this way or that.  I have hated my hair until a few years ago, when I cut my hair the way I wanted it, I wore it the way I wanted it.  My host mom was talking about this last night and her daughter heard her and got upset. Twenty minutes later she came back and told me her daughter said she must apologize to me. We both agree that if we had not built up some form of a relationship this conversation would be totally inappropriate, but at this point it is not.

Why did I bring this up in a blog about Global Citizenship? Because it is vitally important, not the topic but the candid conversation and the expanded understanding. I understand now how it feels to be the minority, how it feels to be the “only”, how it feels to be stared upon all the time. It makes me ashamed of how I may have come across in the past. In fact a few months ago PCJ started a diversity and inclusivity group. One of the girls from my group that has been immersed in this program bared her feelings in one of the sessions. I suspected that I had at some point said something that she felt offended by, but she never said anything. I finally got the courage to just go up to her and apologize for anything I might have said that was offensive. I never meant to offend anyone, but my upbringing is pretty white-washed (lets be real about it). Her eyes got misty and she informed me that yes, in fact I had offended her. She then told me what I had said, and for the life of me I cannot even imagine what I had meant by the statement. I was offended by it when she told me what I had said. I told her that I was not even going to try to justify the statement, defend it or try to quantify it. It was offensive and I was so sorry, I wished she had not waited over a year to say something. She carried this pain for so long. She told me she appreciated my apology as it was sincere and that she is learning to voice herself when she is offended, this is actually why I am using WOC, she stated it was the preferred terminology and I appreciate knowing this instead of saying things that are offensive because they are accepted by society.

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Had either of these incidents occurred before I understood my mental model, well they just would not have occurred. I might have continued on in my life offending people and not even knowing it. I might have also not understood how someone in a minority feels had I not been in a minority myself. The first step in becoming a Global Citizen is to understand the “other”. Putting yourself into an uncomfortable situation to try to get a basic understanding of how other people feel is not the easiest thing to do. I used to pride myself in being color-blind and we white people like to put it, but in truth that is a lie we tell ourselves.

There is diversity and there are “others”, by trying to be color-blind we are denying those different from ourselves their own story. WE begin to weave their story into our own and never allow them to weave their own story. Or we silence their story for long enough, they forget they have a voice, we become the storyteller and the audience and they take the role of puppets. This is denying their very humanity, we do this so often we forget that there are no actual strings attached and that we are playing this opera in our own heads. Reality gets lost and then the truth is forgotten and then we lie to ourselves enough that we eventually forget they are human, too.

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Global citizenship requires us to cut those imagined strings, to let the opera play out, aloud and in full color. It requires us to be the audience and allow another to be the storyteller. It requires us to allow a full orchestra instead of a solo that silences everything else. It requires us to become part of the story within the story with others intertwining the stories into a beautiful art-piece to be appreciated for what it is, not what it could be. An orchestra of voices telling a multitude of stories all at the same time creates an amazing, wonderful novel to be cherished by all, with no solo performances, because the entire orchestra, the dancers and the audience must all be part of the story. The story is incomplete without all of us, this is what Global citizenship is.

Fun Food Fridays: Jamaican Ital Steamed Veg


There are many ways to do this.  It all depends on what is available and how clean you want to eat.  I do not eat Ital, that means no salt, no alcohol, no animal products and no oils.  I use oil, I use salt, I drink alcohol (lately it is less and less due to budget mostly) and I eat cheese and eggs and on a rare occasion seafood.  A true Rasta eats Ital and you will know by how clean their skin is, for real most Rastas have very clear clean skin and eyes.

To start with you have to obtain vegetables.  Today I have Bok Choy, (which Jamaicans call pak chow),  carrots, scallion, onion, tomato, zucchini and some hot pepper.  Cabbage is also a staple in this dish, I just do not happen to have any at the moment.  Traditionally here you will soak your vegetables in salt water to kill off any insects/worms that might be hiding in the leaves.  In Ital cooking you simply chop it all and drop it into the pot/pan and cook it down slowly.  In my version we use a bit of coconut oil to soften/brown the onion and carrots.  I slice the onion and carrots and add them to the hot oil, stirring pretty regularly so as not to burn the oil off.  I then chop up the bok choy, zucchini and toss it in along with slivers of the scotch bonnet pepper, which if you do not like so much heat you can toss in whole, just be careful not to mash it up as that releases the heat.  Cutting sliver off the pepper releases more of the heat but keeps it in control.  I then mix it all together and cover for a bit, keeping my eye on it, because sometimes you need to sprinkle in some water to ensure it steams well.

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I pictured a can of broad beans, which is commonly served with this dish.  I however, made up a pot of black beans this week, so I will be using those instead.  (Crockpots are amazing for cooking up legumes, except kidney beans!)  I reheat the beans while the veggies are steaming.  I also add a little salt, thyme or other seasoning to flavor it up.  As the green parts of the bok choy start to wilt and cook down I cut up a tomato and toss it along with some chopped scallion.  A real Jamaican cook would clean the scallion and toss the whole thing in at the beginning along with a sprig of thyme.  I like to eat the scallion so I cut mine up, scissors are my favorite kitchen tool for cutting scallion, hot pepper slices and garlic bulbs up!  *** The carrot ribbons are cut using a vegetable peeler, another favorite tool I have found!

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Once the beans and rice that I cooked last night are heated up, I plate the dish.  In a traditional Ital shop you might be offered “food” to go with this dish along with chunks.  Food is basically a collection of starches; boiled green banana, Irish potato, sweet potato, breadfruit and/or yam.  It could be any combination of those or all of them.  Sometimes you are also offered a dumpling, which is basically flour and water boiled in the case of an Ital cook.  I find this much starch overwhelming.  I choose one of the items most often rice or Irish, not all of them!

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Chunks are a soy product, they are a textured vegetable protein or TVP.  They seriously look a lot like dried dog food.  Typically they are boiled for 20 minutes and made into a gravy or stew with canned vegetables to be served up on top of the “food” or rice.  I chose beans today because I am out of chunks and I had made up a pot of beans earlier this week. The secret to Ital beans is to cook them in coconut milk.  This creates a tasty almost sweet gravy to mix over the food.  (Richard liked these so much I sent him home with a bag of them.)

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This is a fairly inexpensive meal and quite filling.  This is my favorite Jamaican dish because it has so much vegetable in it.  Typically a boxed food, (Jamaican food to go) is served with a few shavings of cabbage a slice or two or cucumber and a slice or two of tomato.  The majority of the boxed meal is rice and peas with a bit of meat in a lot of gravy.

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It is painting time!


Almost yearly in December you will see Jamaicans painting their homes, their drives, their garage, their shops, whatever it is now is painting time!  I am rather boggled by this as it is also the cooler/rain season.  Why would you run the risk of painting in the rain?

Unlike back home where most people do spring cleaning and preparations at the end of winter, Jamaicans do it in the beginning.  I am not certain the full reasons, but I do know that even the government gets prepared.  There is a push to “bruk bek di bush dem” and “clene up di road dem”!  It has been suggested to me that this is due to many Jamaicans who live in Farrin are typically coming home this time of year.  Instead of focusing on buying presents they focus on creating an inviting environment, at least that is the little bit of information I have been able to ascertain.

Last weekend my host mom spent 3 days painting the gate, the driveway and the little barricades around the yard.  We laughed about how much paint she had on herself, and I assured her I do the same thing.  Almost as much paint on me as on whatever was supposed to be painted.  She has thus moved onto weeding and rearranging the potted plants and garden beds.

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Instead of decking the halls, Jamaicans take the time to get stuff done around their homes, basic repairs, gardening and painting are all common events at this time.  There is often a change in window coverings at this time as well.  It all depends upon budgets and the family.  According to a co-worker this is driven mostly by mothers in their desire to refesh the home.

There is also a great push to prepare a feast for the day.  In fact my host mom asked me today if I needed to go shopping for the holiday today.  I had actually gotten all that I needed this weekend when I went to my old community and spent the weekend vacationing and visiting old friends and host family.  I even went to a Christmas concert.  On a little side note, I had no idea anyone in Jamaica played bagpipes but a young man did in fact play a song on the pipes!  Not an easy instrument to learn.

In most town squares you will find decorations, large light displays shaped like Christmas trees.  The Jamaicans that do decorate most often do not buy a live tree but a small fake one because the cost of a real tree here is nearly $300 USD.  Most families will explore the town displays instead of decorating their own homes, which makes it much more communal and a bit more special in my opinion.  When you can see the decorations without much effort for as long as you desire, it loses some of the uniqueness of seeking them out.

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Now is also the time of year for school programs, church programs and work parties.  On Thursday this week we went into Kingston to UWI to attend the annual Christmas party.  Traditionally they rent out an area of an all inclusive for the night, but this year funding is tight so they have decided to host a party at the university.  This will be my final Christmas in Jamaica and I want to experience as much as I can before I go back to not celebrating at all.  We were given a tour of the new UWI museum and it was quite informative.  We also had a nice dinner and some entertainment and drinks.  They opened up the wine and I ensured there was none wasted.   Last Sunday I attended a Christmas Concert and the most amazing thing happened.  Not only did I hear the Jamaican 12 days of Christmas but I saw a Jamaican youth play a bagpipe.  Ok stop and reread that!  Yes a Jamaican playing the bagpipe!

My current plan for the actual holiday is to get up make Bloody Mary’s and coffee along with a nice breakfast with another volunteer and her husband, who will be going to Grand Market the night before with me and staying the night.

Last night we went to Brown’s Town Grand Market and it was pretty fun.  There were tons of vendors and the streets around town were shut down.  It was sort of like a huge county fair and a street party hybrid. The most bizarre thing was that there were men in the audience at one of the main stages with cans of Pyro (bug spray).  They would spray it in the air and then catch it with a lighter to make these very dangerous and toxic flame throwers.  One guy we were so sure was going to light the awning above him afire.  I confess to never really hearing Jamaican dancehall music because the DJ always talks over it so I have no idea what is under the obnoxious talking.  I wish I could just hear the songs so I would know if I truly enjoyed the music.

Got home early this morning and dropped into bed and then work up fairly early.  I made coffee and slipped outside to enjoy one of my magazines.  At some point one of my guests woke up and joined me in the coffee and offered to make breakfast.  We enjoyed breakfast salads and later I made, for the first time, home made tomato juice for scratch Bloody Mary’s.  I also was gifted a new Television for my apartment last night along with having cable hooked up.  So now I have added a marathon of Criminal Minds to my plans for the day.  I have really enjoyed the low-key Christmas and intend on doing this for the rest of my life to avoid anxiety over the season.

Fun Food Friday: Christmas Cake


Here in Jamaica at this time of year the grocery stores and shops are bustling with energy. The baking aisle is very busy this time of year. You will find these aisle loaded with flours, sugars, baking powders and dried fruits and nuts galore. From early December you will find people stocking up on these supplies, because this is the time of year to enjoy a traditional Jamaican favorite, Christmas Cake. It is laced with rum, red wine, rehydrated fruits and every ounce of love that can be bestowed upon a cake.

This week for the employee Christmas party I was privileged to watch our staff cook prepare and bake the Christmas cake. She also made a sweet potato pudding, which I have only had a couple of times but am determined to learn how to make.
The secret to Christmas cake here is that the fruits are soaked, usually overnight, in rum and red wine. This softens them up and our cook actually blended the fruit to create a paste as some people do not like the texture of fruit pieces in their cakes.

As it was being mixed together she added liquid browning, something I bought and had no idea what to do with as it is simply for color, nothing else! (Brown Stew whatever is the only things I have knowingly seen with it used.) This substance takes it from a light brownish color to a deep rich almost chocolate cake color, which is what I thought Christmas cake was the first time I tried it.

In my whole life I have never actually tried Fruitcake. It usually has nuts in it, I hate candied fruits, and it is typically heavy like a brick and hard like a rock. I have heard many jokes about fruitcake, like you just save it to regift the next year, fortunately it was not something my mother liked and she never forced it upon us. In fact she described it pretty much as an abomination and something that should be banned for life. Having this opinion of fruitcake, I was a little hesitant to try Jamaican Christmas cake when it was offered to me. I took it out of courtesy. I mean, I can only say vegetarian to foods that contain meat to get out of trying them, cake is not made from meat!

So if you are adventurous and trust me, everything is better with rum in it, here is the recipe for Jamaican Christmas cake!!  Just remember there is no such thing as too much rum, unless you are giving this to children, then make them a less potent version.  Also soak that fruit for 24 hours to really get the flavor and the moisture in it. The other secret ingredient at least for this one is bread crumbs to add density and texture.

 

 

Fun Food Friday: Akee!


Akee and Saltfish is Jamaica’s National Dish.  It is quite interesting that Akee is not originally native to the island, it was likely brought over by slaves.  Akee is considered a national pride and everyone who visits should at least try this dish.  Saltfish is also not from Jamaica, but rather dried and salt preserved cod shipped over from England.  To add saltfish you must first soak it, best if done overnight, but you can speed it up by boiling some of the salt out as well.  You will notices the texture remains rather stiff  and chewy but flakes well.  You should understand that there may be a few bones in your dish, as the it is hard to remove all of them.

Since I do not eat meat if I can help it and I most certainly am not a fan of saltfish, I cook my akee differently.  I also skip the process of boiling it first, as that makes it more watery and I like it a bit more solid.  Akee is actually poisonous until it naturally pops the pod open.  You must know who you buy your akee from, because people will “tief” it before it is ready, force it open and then sell it to persons on the street.  Anytime you hear of a large number of akee poisonings, you can almost bet they bought it on the street.

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Nutritiously akee is much like avocado, mostly fats.  It is also a similar consistency to scrambled eggs.  If you get it from an Ital shop, which is how the Rastas would eat it, you will not have any additional oil or salt on it.  You also will  not find saltfish in it if you get it from an Ital shop.

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The Akee must first be carefully removed from the pod.  Then you must cut the flower and seed out.  This takes time and sometimes you lose some of the akee, but it is better to remove all of the flower and seed than risk eating them as these are the parts which still carry poison in them.   If you are not familiar with how to cook it, let a Jamaican show you first.  Better safe than dead!

I do not cook Ital, I use salt and oil!  I start off with some coconut oil and saute down some onion and hot pepper.  I like to slice my pepper with a pair of scissors to get a nice fine sliver or two, not too much as it is hot!  I will also use scissors to slice my garlic into the pan, and if I am using scallion I cut it with scissors as well.  I love my scissors!  As soon as the onion starts to brown up I toss in the akee and sweet peppers.  I continually stir making sure it does not stick.  I then add some seasoning, be it salt and pepper or a blend of herbs or both.  To serve with the akee I sometimes steam up some cabbage or make callaloo.  Bread fruit is also good with the akee.  Roast breadfruit is so good and super nutritious.

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In this dish I sauteed up sweet pepper, hot pepper, onion, garlic, akee and tomato and served it with Steamed cabbage, which I will share in a future blog!

Christmas Breeze


In Jamaica you know the Christmas season is here, not by the decorations but by the cool breeze that come in.  The temperature drops and there is often a nice breeze that cools the island.  You also know because there is a whole lot of paining and cleaning going on.  For many Jamaican homes this is the time of year for “spring cleaning”.  Gutters are washed down, if they exist.  A fresh coat of paint is put on exterior walls.  New curtains and doilies are put up inside the homes.  Instead of focusing on gifts and decorations there is almost like a purging and renewal going on.

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This is also a time for school exams to happen, so the children are all anxious about studying and passing exams.  Some places of business and some homes do put up lights and decorations, but for the most part decorating is not done here, at least not to the point it is done back home.  Instead of focusing on Santa, which I have never heard a child talk about, they focus on fun, food and family.   This is the time of year when Sorrel drink is made, Christmas cake is shared and a feast is put forth.  Gift exchanges will be very small trinkets or not at all.  In fact many families do not buy gifts but instead head to Grand Market on Christmas Eve.  This is a time of celebration.  My host family has invited me to go with them this year, I went last year to the one in Ochi but this year I will be going to Brown’s Town, weather permitting.  I have heard stories about the Brown’s Town Grand Market and how it is much more festive than the one in Ochi.

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In the Grand Market we can see John Canoe players and traditional dress for traditional dances.  We will see vendors along the roadsides selling anything and everything.  Most families buy a new set of clothes for each member and dress up for this event.  We can often see children getting small sweeties and a small new toy, often towards the end of the night as this is when vendors drop the price.  This is truly an event to be seen.  If you come to Jamaica for Christmas, you should definitely find the local shopping mecca and participate and observe the Grand Market.  Oh but be wary of pick pockets and robberies as these crimes increase this time of year.

Be sure to enjoy some Christmas cake, which is basically a fruit cake, but with a load of rum in it.  Also try the Sorrel drink, made from a type of Hibiscus with rum and red wine added to it. Be sure to dress in your finest clothes and take in the delights of the Market.  Knowing that the party will go on until dawn, when people will then often head into the Church for a Christmas sermon.  Know that the family will feast after the service well into the night, eating and drinking and enjoying the day to the fullest.  And if the weather is nice the families often head to the nearest beach to enjoy some time at the sea.  Often the day after Christmas is a family fun day of beach or river activity.  The day after is called boxing day and it is derived from the time of slaves where the owners would give the slaves the day off to visit family sending a box with the Christmas feast from the previous night home with them.

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To me this is a much better way to celebrate the holiday.  Instead of breaking the bank decorating and gift giving, give the gifts of time and experiences.  Learn to enjoy family time and looking forward to the new year.  Finding the joy in just being with friends and family is the greatest gift I can think of, and this is really what a Jamaican Christmas is about!