Take a look at a roomful of Jamaicans enjoying a night out and you might easily think this is one of the most free, open societies on the planet, what with the downright sexiness of the dancing and the frankness of the chat-up lines. But the party scene is just one aspect of Jamaican culture, and the society as a whole is actually pretty conservative. The vast majority of Jamaicans are practising Christians, far more likely to spend Sunday mornings in church than recovering from the night before.
Jamaica can be quite a paradoxical place; it’s fine to turn up at a sound-system party wearing little more than a few strips of fabric, but wear your bikini anywhere away from the beach and you’re likely to cause offence. Similarly, as most locals take a great deal of pride in their appearance, grubbing around in a crumpled T-shirt speckled with last night’s jerk sauce is a guaranteed way not to be taken seriously. In terms of general dress codes, though, you’ll want something smart if you plan on clubbing, and men will need long trousers if planning to dine at the better restaurants (jackets are required only at the most expensive places).
Jamaicans are refreshingly direct; your big nose or bald head will be seen as fair game for comment, and while an open invitation to bed within the first five minutes of meeting someone can be disconcerting, you at least know where you stand. At the same time, old-fashioned manners are maintained here; passing someone on a rural street without acknowledging them will be seen as rude, as will failing to greet a shop assistant with a “good morning/afternoon” before launching into your request. The elderly are revered in Jamaican culture, and it’s usual to preface someone’s name with Mr or Miss when addressing someone much older than you; kids are taught to respect their elders at all times and never answer back. Bear in mind, too, that many locals are a bit weary of serving as the “Jamaican Rasta” or “market lady” in the holiday snaps of a thousand visitors – it’s polite to ask before taking someone’s picture (and don’t be surprised if they ask for a little money should they say yes).
For women travelling solo, Jamaica can be hard work until you get used to the constant male attention. In the resorts particularly, unaccompanied women can expect to receive a barrage of attention from Jamaican men, from hopeful innuendo – “gal, me a cry for you”– to frankly pornographic propositions, and a walk down the street will have you sized up by a thousand eyes. All of this is somewhat wearing after the first couple of days, particularly if your holiday plans don’t include “climbing aboard the big bamboo”. Cope with your new status as a sex goddess with humility and humour; it probably has more to do with your foreign allure – or perceived economic clout – than your personal charms, and a lot of the come-ons can be extremely amusing.
As lots of women do come to Jamaica in search of “exotic” romance, many locals will inevitably assume that single female travellers have come here to find a man – or several. The news that you’re not will often be greeted with incredulity, and the semi-professional gigolos (and full-blown male prostitutes) who work the resorts will do their best to get you to change your mind. If you’re not interested, saying “no” and meaning it, dressing fairly conservatively and avoiding idle chat with men you don’t know are good lines of defence. Learn to listen to your instincts; the slightest hint of flirting means that you are probably about to be propositioned, so assume that even the most innocent reaction may be interpreted as a sign of acquiescence.
Jamaica is not a gay-friendly country. Sodomy (and so-called lewd acts, taken to mean any homosexual activity) is illegal here, condemned as a sin by the church and the moral majority, and fuel for much hysterical press coverage. And while there’s a sizeable gay community here, it’s very much an undercover scene, with parties and events publicized by word of mouth.
Attempting to argue with freely expressed prejudices is almost always a lesson in futility – it’ll be you against the Bible. But this doesn’t mean that gay and lesbian travellers should avoid Jamaica – many hotels are managed by gay men, and a lot of the smarter ones won’t turn a hair if you ask for a ouble room – but don’t expect to be able to display affection in public without attracting catcalls, sniggers, downright aggression and maybe even physical violence. For more information contact J-Flag, the Jamaican gay and lesbian support group (754 2130, 379 9834, jflag.org).