Sunday, July 5, 2015


When I was first dating my native-Chicagoan husband, he couldn’t believe I had never had jerk chicken before. It quickly became one of my favorite foods. And the south side of Chicago has some of the best places to get jerk chicken. They also served with it this dense white bread that my husband loves so much (the jerk chicken places here in Indy that we’ve tried use a cheaper wheat or white bread, and it’s just not the same—the crumb is too loose). When I told him we were on Jamaica now, he begged me to find that recipe, and after some research, I found the recipe for hard dough bread (also spelled with a variety of spellings). When we got married almost 11 years ago, we wanted to take our honeymoon to Jamaica, but life got in the way, and we were never able to take a honeymoon anywhere. And now we have two kids. Maybe one of these days, we’ll all go.

The word Jamaica comes from its indigenous people, the Taíno people, meaning “Land of Wood and Water” or “Land of Springs.” Jamaicans themselves often refer to their island as the “Rock,” and there are many derivatives from this. [Note: this made me think of the popular drink throughout Latin America called jamaica (or flor de jamaica), pronounced ha-MY-kah, made from hibiscus flowers. But as far as I can tell, the name comes the flower being imported into Jamaica first and then Mexico. However, in the country of Jamaica, it’s called sorrel; it’s also called bissap among other names in West Africa.]

Jamaica is an island nation in the Caribbean. Cuba is to the north, Haiti to the east, the Cayman Islands to the west, and Panama and Colombia is directly south if you travel a ways across the Caribbean.

Jamaica has a tropical climate and is subject to Atlantic hurricanes; it’s been devastated many times during its history. The island’s tropical climate allows for a variety of plants and animals that thrive in this climate to make Jamaica their home. Many kinds of fish, birds, insects, lizards, and other animals are found here. The good thing is that of the eight types of snakes that are found on the island, none are poisonous (I personally would treat all snakes as poisonous and ready to eat me whole, despite its size. But that’s just me.). On the other hand, Jamaica is home to the Giant Swallowtail, the world’s second-largest butterfly. 

Like other islands in this area, the Arawak and Taíno peoples were the first inhabitants of Jamaica. Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Jamaica in 1494 and claimed it in the name of Spain. The Spanish introduced many crops to the area, such as sugarcane, a variety of citrus trees, bananas, and others. By the mid-1600s, the British had taken control and quickly brought in slaves from Africa to work these fields and within 20 years time, blacks had outnumbered the white population. During this time, Jews who were banished from their home areas in Europe saw Jamaica as a refuge and a new start and began pouring into the country. There were also a number of free blacks on the island as well, many escaping the US (like they did with the Bahamas). After the British finally abolished slavery during the early 1800s, they began shipping in Indian and Chinese workers as indentured servants to work the fields. Although the British did manage to make some changes in their labor laws (i.e. making it illegal to beat the workers, etc.), this system of labor more or less lasted until the middle of the 20th century. There were still several revolts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and the island remained under British control. By 1962, their efforts paid off, and Jamaica became its own country. However, it still pays homage to the queen (like Canada). With their manufacturing industry, their bauxite and aluminum industries along with tourism, Jamaica began their independence with a strong economy. However, economic changes for the worse throughout the 1970s and 1980s caused a tension that forced the country to rely on more foreign investment and support.

The capital city, Kingston, is the island’s largest city and located on the southeastern shores of the island. This city is the largest city south of the United State where the majority of its people speak English. The harbor this city is situated on, Kingston Harbour, is the seventh-largest harbor in the world. This large harbor is probably why it was chosen as the perfect location for a capital city. The city is home to about 940,000 people and is the center of government, business, education, sports and has a strong arts and culinary side to their culture. The British set up many botanical gardens across the island, and this city hosts several that are still standing.

One of the largest economic drivers in Jamaica is none other than tourism. Mining is also important with bauxite and alumina mining forming a significant portion of this industry. Along with mining, various kinds of manufacturing also employ many people in businesses such as glass production, construction, beverage processing, printing, publishing, and software and data (and other technical) processing. However, Jamaica is also a haven for music production, insurance underwriting and financial services, and educational services in the Caribbean. The island is also widely known for its agricultural products such as sugar, coffee, rum, yams, and bananas.

Because of the longstanding presence of the British on this island, Christianity remains a majority religion on this island, and this includes many different denominations, mostly Protestant. And the interesting thing is that Jamaica has more “churches” per square mile than any other country in the world. (Chicago’s south side is probably number two—if it were its own country, that is.) Jamaica is also mostly identified with the Rastafari movement, which got its start in Ethiopia and is known for its practices of dredlocks and smoking marajuana. But because there were many Indian and Chinese workers brought here in the past, there are also many followers of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bahá’í as well as other local indigenous belief systems. 

English is the official language of Jamaica. However, most locals speak a type of Creole called Jamaican Patois. This patois uses many words from English but has also incorporated many words from African languages and Taíno (and other indigenous) languages. Many Jamaican Patois words have spread across the word with the global popularity of reggae music. 

But for this small-ish island in the Caribbean, Jamaica has a lot to brag about. Jamaica was the first country to build a railroad in the Western Hemisphere. Not only did they build it, they built it 18 years before the US did. And this country first established a postal code in 1688! Jamaica was also the first country to commercially produce rum. (And I sincerely thank you for it.) Jamaica is known for its sports stars and has won numerous medals in world competitions. Among its top performs include Sherone Simpson, Asafa Powell, and Usain Bolt. The Jamaican bobsleigh team made history and was commemorated in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings. Of all the national flags in the world, Jamaica’s flag is the only one that doesn’t share any colors with the US flag. (Yes, I had to look at some flags just to make sure.) But one thing that remains true is this: this country has a lot to offer, like good food and good music for starters.

Up next: art and literature

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