Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ocho Rios, Jamaica - observing the local artisans

DB~ and I got back on Saturday from a well-deserved, week-long vacation to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. There will be some more posts about more "tropical resort-ish" aspects of our trip and the other places we went, but I thought I would lead off with a gritty, grindy post about our trip to downtown Ocho Rios.

First things first...if you are going to Jamaica, you have to know that if you step 1 foot off of your resort, you will be haggled by someone trying to sell you something. DB~ and I were well aware of this going into the trip, but it still seemed to take aback some others that we met on the trip.

We took a shuttle, along with 12 other people from our resort, to downtown Ocho Rios's shopping district on Monday (3/29). This was mainly our chance to get some souvenirs at better prices than on the resort, but I always want to really get a feel for the local flavor when I visit somewhere, too. When we got off the shuttle, we were dropped in the heart of the area and told we would be picked up in 2 hours.

We instantly went into this "gated community" of sorts for shopping called Soni's. It was where all the hagglers on the street are kept out by a gate and there is security patrolling inside. This was a good way for us to get our feet wet before what would come later. While inside this Soni's complex, we were stunned to see that it was run and primarily staffed by a large amount of Indians. When you go to a place like Jamaica, it's just a little jarring to be bartering a piece of jewelry for your girlfriend with an Indian. We got the majority of our souvenirs here, and only had to go into a few stores to do it, so we had lots of time left to walk the town and get a feel for the pulse of a town that rises and swells like the tides with every cruise ship that comes into port. Once we left the semi-protected area of Soni's is when things got more real.

This area had the energy and street feel of a place like the Strip District on a Saturday in the summer, but amplified by a power of 10. At no point, walking by ourselves through this stretch, did we feel in danger but there is this element of unknowing that hangs in the air. There is such desperation to earn a dollar from everyone you meet. It will really alter my view of shopping, in general, and in the Strip District in particular from now on. It will be tough to not try and barter in the Strip!

I love grocery shopping so I wanted to see what one was like in Jamaica. We went into a place called General Foods to do a little price shopping. Earlier in the week, I had overheard from a person on the resort that the minimum wage here was 14 cents an hour. That's why when you tip someone on the resort $1 or $2 dollars, they will usually go out of their way for you. Think of your hourly wage or salary by the hour and then imagine if someone gave you a tip of 7 or 15 times that rate. The prices in the grocery store (using some quick goat math to convert 90 Jamaican into 1 US) were usually half of what we pay here. But then factor in the much larger wage scale and you can see that most groceries could be luxuries here. Case in point - the ground meat was roughly the same price there as it is here -- that's a huge deal for someone that may be earning $1.40 a day.

We had been souvenir shopping, wandered the streets taking photos of the hub-bub and the people, went grocery shopping, so now it was time to get gritty and grindy and go into the Craft Market.

This is where the local artisans congregate in this tight labyrinth of rows and pathways, all asking to come look at their store with open arms but flat tones in their voices. They know that most of the time they will be ignored or shooed away. In this area, at first, DB~ and I did feel slightly edgy. It's very tight and there are locals right on top of you at every turn. But then we had an epiphany, of sorts...this was a tight-knit community within Ocho Rios's own community. Nothing bad was going to happen to you here (aside from overpaying for something!), especially if you stayed aware of your surroundings.

And then we found our oasis in the form of a man named Tony. He is the picture at the top of the post and may have been our favorite Jamaican that we met on our trip. His area was all the way at the back and when we approached him, he was sitting on a concrete ledge carving a wooden fish out of a piece of cedar. He did not give us any high-pressure sales pitch, just asked us to look at his stuff and we could do a deal. Without saying anything, DB~ and I just felt...relaxed...wholly relaxed for the first time in downtown Ocho Rios. We could have been anywhere in Pittsburgh watching a man carve a fish out of cedar, but we were here in Jamaica.

Before the trip, we wanted to get some type of local art for the two of us to remember the trip by. This was it. We negotiated the price for this fish to $8 and then asked Tony if he could stain it for us while we finished walking through the market, a period of 20 minutes. He said sure. We perused the rest of the market and DB~ bartered a good deal for some wooden bracelets, but we returned to Tony's area in 10 minutes. It was our comfort zone.

When we got back earlier than expected, I told Tony we just wanted to hang out and watch him work. We asked him questions periodically about himself and his life, but mostly it was just really satisfying to know that the wooden fish on my mantle right now was made right in front of us and not in some factory in China (like many souvenirs in Jamaica). Tony had been carving for 15 years and his hands proved it -- there were many "uh-oh's" on his hands from stray awl and chisel misses. Tony gathers his own wood up in the hills outside Ocho Rios. He lived close by to the market and walked to his stand, which he pays the equivalent of $16 US/month to rent.

In a typical day, Tony makes 8 wooden pieces of art, whether it is fish, birds, or an elaborate barracuda and stains them. It is hard, manual work that he does. Most of them he sells wholesale to a friend who then distributes them all over Jamaica. You see a lot of similar looking fish at various souvenir places throughout the country. But ours was made right in front of us. And for that, I thank you Tony. Yeah, it was only $8, but you gave DB~ and I our lasting memory of Jamaica.

One love, Tony. Respec'.

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