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Welcome Home, Yardie Girl

When you return to Jamaica, everyone there says “Welcome Home”. I had not been back to my birth place since I was 11 so I was long over due. Since it is my 50th year, I decided I needed to make it happen. This journey was a mixture of relaxing resort and a little trip down memory lane. I wanted to return to the house where I spent the first 4 years of my life as well as visit Dunn’s River Falls, two of the few things I remembered well.

I am well aware of the negatives of most forms of tourism but as much as I would love to travel sustainably, it’s not only convoluted it’s also expensive. Jamaica was the chosen destination. I can only fly there. The internet says I have to plant at least 21 trees to make up for the flight but one or two will have to suffice. We also wanted to do a day trip to Kingston, my birthplace, and Ocho Rios was the closest tourist city. There is a lovely eco-resort called Hermosa Cove that we looked into but we couldn’t make the dates work and it really was pushing our budget to its limit. So we decided on the all-inclusive Couples Sans Souci.

Banning Plastic Bags, ocho rios, jamaica, waste reduction, coconut tree restaurant

A quick Google search showed me that Jamaica is not known for its environmentalism. They have been very slow to get on the eco train in recent years with a just a few changes in agriculture policy and a recent ban on plastic bags, styrofoam and plastic straws. Add to that the all-inclusives that make up Jamaica’s substantial tourism industry are renowned for their waste on all levels. Having experienced the nasty side of single use plastic cups at an all-inclusive in Cuba recently, we took our reusable coffee mugs to try an avoid this travesty. Drinking a Margarita in a stainless steel mug is not that enjoyable but it’s better than throwing out one cup per drink. So I went into this vacation knowing I was going to harm the environment but after such a long cold, dark winter my need for sun outweighed my eco-conscience. However, Sans Souci impressed me with not only its chill environment, beautiful gardens, and excellent food but also its eco and ethical surprises.

Unlike most Caribbean all-inclusives, the four Couples resorts in Jamaica were built by a local, Abraham Issa, who’s family came to the island in the late 1800’s. Issa first hotel was in Kingston and it broke colonial tradition by allowing black Jamaicas to stay there. His first all-inclusive hotel was established outside Ocho Rios in the late 40’s. He was also the first to combine the all-inclusive and couples only environment in the 70’s. By the early 2000’s his family started the Issa Trust Foundation, a non profit with the focus of providing pediatric healthcare and education for children and their families. (1) While we were there we discovered that a portion of our fees went to support a local school and you could visit the school with a day tour. Run today by his son Lee and other members of the family, Couples resorts celebrate Jamaican culture at all times.(2) From local bands and performers to a night dedicated to Jamaican food and culture, we never forgot where we were.

couples sans souci, ocho rios, jamaica, vacation, reusable plastic cups, beer, red stripe

Red Stripe Beer in reusable plastic cups.

When we arrived at the resort we were asked to sign in with a recyclable paper pen. These pens were all over the resort which was a small but meaningful touch. The rooms followed the standard water reduction policy of reuse your towels and one set of sheets per visit. The only problem with this was that with the damp ocean air, nothing ever dried. To absorb the natural elements and save energy, we seldom ever turned on our air conditioner which might have contributed to this problem. Certainly not an end of the world issue.

When we got to the swim up pool bar I was incredibly pleased to see that they used reusable plastic cups and paper straws. I don’t know why all hotels don’t do this. I would imagine they save money by not having to buy those flimsy plastic cups and by not having to deal with the waste. One lovely Mojito down, we discovered that the pools were all designed to use mostly salt water and very few chemicals. They were an absolute joy to swim in and you didn’t end the day with that nasty chlorine smell.

I didn’t get a sense for the amount of food waste behind the scene but I would imagine a lot of it was taken away by the staff. While there were some accolades to international cuisine, the best food was the local fare: in season fruits, curies, and jerk sauce. I never left the table wanting for flavour. And the coffee? All local and spectacular. They just needed an all-day espresso bar.

It took us a couple days to realize that the tap water was fine to drink. In the meantime their local bottled water called “Wata” was every where. Something I would recommend the resort to change would be to encourage the guests to drink the tap water (they provided tons of ice with just a phone call) rather than providing small bottles of water. One thing they did very well was keep the grounds and beaches clean from any fly away plastic trash. Unlike the rest of Ocho Rios.

Recycling Bin, Kingston, Jamaica, environmental outreach, waste reduction

For our trip down memory lane the second part happened at a local AirB&B, the Paradise Penthouse, a fabulous three bedroom, 3 bath townhouse in Ocho Rios. It also had its own salt water pool and steps down to the ocean. Yes, it was gated but it was right in the town itself. We decided to hire a driver (Chris Jamaica Tours) for all of our excursions which not only supported the local economy but also meant we didn’t have to navigate the crazy traffic on the left side of the road. Having Chris and his co-worker Pepsi (“same great taste every time!”) was the best decision we made as they provided us with tons of information about the local culture, language, politics and economy. We learned that while Jamaica had just recently banned plastic bags they had few to no recycling facilities.  Kingston was the worst for trash in the streams and by the side of the road. I did see a bin at the University we visited but it was the only blue bin of the whole trip.

Upon my return I discovered this article in the Washington Post that mentions some of the challenges that the countries of the Caribbean face when it comes to dealing with waste. One issue is the lack of space for land fills and the other is more coast line that acquires waste washing up from other sources. However, the biggest challenge I see, is cultural. When you have to pay for bill boards encouraging people to put waste in the bin you know there is a lack respect for the land and its rivers. But also, as we have seen in our own country, if you don’t provide the infrastructure, the actual bins and trucks to pick up the garbage, people will be more likely to let it lie where it falls. We decided on our last day to go to a local beach and it was fabulous. Lots of cold beer, chairs to lounge on and a mix of fresh and salt water to swim in. We were still the only ones however, who picked up the garbage from the water, river and beach. It pains me to see such a stunningly beautiful country, the country of my birth, wallowing in waste. Jamaica and the islands of the Caribbean need to come up with solutions to their waste problem soon if they want to continue to be tourism destinations.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a wonderful trip. The people were amazingly friendly, the views are spectacular, and the stories were epic. Jamaica culture is overflowing with history and energy and we will be returning soon. Dunn’s River Falls was the most refreshing water I have ever been in. Yes, the park itself is a bit touristy but you forget all that when you sink down into the crystal blue pools of water. It was fun to travel through the Blue Mountains, see where I was born, and witness how much has changed and how much has not. The local language, Patois, was fascinating to listen to. You could pick out an english word or two but for most part I didn’t know what they were saying. We did learn a few keepers. Ya mon – means everything from hello, thanks, that’s great etc. Wah gwaan – what’s going on. And apparently, I am called a Yardie girl – meaning a girl born in Jamaica who now lives abroad. Though it can also mean a criminal. Only in Jamaica.

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