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Living in Jamaica
A practical guide to the way of life in Jamaica
When you think of life in Jamaica, the constant sunshine and reggae music might be the first things to spring to mind, but living there is about much more than that tourist stereotypes. Check out our Relocation Guide to Jamaica for a deeper insight into the “Land of Wood and Water”.
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Life in Jamaica
Hurricanes and Sunshine
The island’s climate is probably one of the main draws for people dreaming of visiting or living in Jamaica. Jamaica’s tropical climate makes for wonderful holidays in the sun, with temperatures rarely falling below 20°C, and facilitates many diverse ecosystems.
Although the constant sunshine is a great selling point for tourism, the novelty might wear thin if you’re intending to live in Jamaica for an extended period of time. Prepare yourself for the high level of humidity, which can be oppressive and tiring if you’re not used to it.
The country is also located in the Atlantic hurricane belt, meaning that Jamaica is at risk of hurricanes from June to November every year, with the peak season from August to October. However, it’s important to note that the country is only hit directly by a hurricane every eleven years, on average, so your chances of being affected are fairly slim. Most recently, Jamaica was heavily affected by Hurricane Sandy, which caused 100 million USD worth of damage in 2012. Fortunately, however, it was mostly spared by other devastating storms in the region, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016 or Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.
The Jamaican Population
With just under three million people, Jamaica’s population is small, and only the capital city of Kingston has over 200,000 residents: most of the country’s metropolises would therefore be considered medium-sized neighbourhoods in other expat magnets around the globe.
The vast majority of the population today is of African ancestry. There are also smaller demographic groups of Jamaicans with Indian and Chinese heritage, and with increasing immigration to the country, the numbers of US American, Canadian, and British people living in the country are also on the rise.
A Brief History of “Xaymaca”
Jamaica has an eventful and fascinating history. Populated by the Arawak and Taíno indigenous people for thousands of years, the island was colonised by Spain in 1509 and subsequently Britain in 1655. The island experienced centuries of slavery, becoming one of the world’s leading slave-dependent sugar exporters in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the slave trade was declared illegal in 1807, and slavery itself was abolished about 30 years later. After that, many owners of sugar plantations hired workers from abroad, especially from India and China, adding to Jamaica’s ethnic heritage.
It was only in the 20th century that Jamaica achieved independence from the UK. It became a country of its own in 1962. Today, it remains a Commonwealth realm, and therefore Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and reigning monarch.
A Culture of Music and Good Food
Music is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of cultural life in Jamaica, and the country is internationally renowned for its reggae, dub, and dancehall genres, and for famous singers like Bob Marley. It has also popularized the Rastafari culture and religion, the trademarks of which are a traditional dreadlock hairstyle and a green, gold, and red pattern used on clothing. Rastafari is often associated with Jamaica and popularly perceived as a symbol of the country’s culture, but in reality only around 1% of Jamaicans follow this religion, Christianity is a far more popular choice, followed by almost 70% of the country’s population.
Of course, Jamaican culture is about more than just music. The island is also known for its cuisine, which frequently uses local ingredients, and is influenced by a variety of the cultural heritages that make up Jamaica, such as Spanish, British, Indian, and Chinese. Jamaica’s best-known dish is jerk chicken, and the famous jerk spice is sold all around the world. Seafood dishes are also particularly popular, especially ackee and saltfish.
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Crime and Transportation in Jamaica
The Crime Rate
One of the biggest problems in Jamaican society is the high crime rate and large-scale corruption throughout society. Drug trafficking, as well as the gang violence that accompanies it, is especially a cause for concern. This has led to Jamaica having one of the highest murder rates in the world, with approximately 50 homicides per 100,000 people as of 2016, which is in fact an increase on recent years.
Acts of violence are not limited to the poor parts of town or gang territory, but they could occur anywhere and are part of normal life in some areas, with home burglaries being especially common, even in affluent neighborhoods and gated communities. Although the majority of the criminal activity is Jamaican-on-Jamaican violence, it is still possible to get caught in the crossfire.
Expats Shouldn’t Worry Too Much
Despite the worrying crime rate, expats don’t need to worry too much about their safety while living in Jamaica. Although the larger cities like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Negril and, of course, Kingston, see their fair share of violence on a daily basis, you are unlikely to witness anything more than the petty crime common in big cities. Also, be careful when using public ATMs, which have often been tampered with by fraudsters.
Still, it is important to take certain precautions, like limiting the amount of valuables you carry to a minimum, being alert when walking at night or in certain neighbourhoods, and, of course, simply using your common sense. If in doubt, ask locals — for example your work colleagues, cab drivers, and especially your realtor — which areas you should avoid as an expat. It would also be wise to install security measures in your new home or even hire a private security service.
Additionally, it is important to remember that although the use of marijuana is widespread and synonymous with Jamaican culture in the minds of many foreigners, it is still not fully legal in the country. As of 2015, possession of a small amount (56 grams) has been decriminalized and limited to a petty offence, meaning it will not appear on a criminal record — however, any more is still illegal and could land you in trouble.
The LGBT Community
One negative side of life in Jamaica is the country’s controversial and discriminatory attitude towards the LGBT community, which even led to the nation being named “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth” in 2006 by Time Magazine. Same-sex sexual activity between men is still technically illegal, due to outdated 19th-century colonial legislation. Although sexual activity between women is not criminalized, lesbian or bisexual women in Jamaica still have to face social stigma and discrimination.
LGBT residents are often treated violently or in a hateful manner, with homophobic slurs being commonplace. Verbal abuse and physical attacks are not uncommon, and there have been many cases of Jamaicans being murdered due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the situation appears to be slowly improving, thanks to the constant work of local activists and the progress of LGBT rights all around the world, it is still advisable that openly homosexual or transgender men and women think twice before considering living in Jamaica.
Driving with Caution — Transportation in Jamaica
As Jamaica is part of the Commonwealth, motorists drive on the left-hand side of the road. A large part of the Jamaican road infrastructure suffers from years of neglect and disrepair. You might encounter problems like giant potholes, poorly-marked construction sites, inadequate street signage, or intimidating local driving. Drive with caution until you have acclimatised to the local road rules, and avoid driving at night whenever possible. Always be on the lookout for pedestrians and cyclists!
As a newcomer to Jamaica, you can only drive on your home license for a limited period of time before it is invalid. Therefore, we recommend that expats acquire an International Driving Permit (IDP) from their home country before moving. It will allow them to drive legally in Jamaica for a year before they need to acquire a Jamaican license. The process for this is subject to change, so we recommend contacting the Jamaica Tax Administration office, which is in charge of issuing local driving permits. A motor vehicle license costs 5400 JMD (around 43 USD) as of 2017. It lasts for five years and expires on your birthday, but can be renewed up to 30 days beforehand.
On a national scale, the large cities are connected via a network of four highways, A1 through 4, and a number of secondary roads with the designation B. In addition to the road issues mentioned above, the secondary roads are often rather narrow and frequently populated by livestock on the roadside.
There is the risk of flash flooding of roads due to heavy rainfall during most of the year. These floods make the roads impassable and often pose serious threats to motorists using them at the time of the flood. Before going on a journey, check the weather and road condition reports.
If you don’t plan on driving in Jamaica, you have several other options to get around. The most popular form of public transport is buses, which can take you all over the island and are relatively cheap. However, they are often overcrowded and there is no set timetable — the driver simply leaves when the bus is full. Minibuses and route taxis are also popular, travelling to almost every village in the country.
Unlike many other countries, Jamaica does not have a railway system, as the popularity of trains has mostly been replaced by the use of cars. Unusually for an island, it also does not have an established boat or ferry service for local residents to get from A to B.
Healthcare in Jamaica
The Limited Health Infrastructure
Jamaica’s healthcare system has several issues with its infrastructure, and this has affected the availability and quality of the institutions. Depending on your location in Jamaica, the healthcare facilities available to you might be somewhat restricted in terms of quantity. While every parish has at least one small hospital, comprehensive emergency care is only available in the cities of Kingston and Montego Bay. Outside of the larger cities or in remote parts of the country, emergency services are limited in both quality and quantity.
All in all, there are about thirty hospitals and clinics on the island. To find the one nearest to your place of residence, consult the Ministry of Healthwebsite to see a map of hospital locations with contact details.
Public and Private Institutions
There are between 30 and 40 hospitals and clinics in Jamaica, many of which are public institutions, meaning their services are offered free of charge to all citizens and residents. However, they are often unreliable, and their quality varies widely. The high rate of violent crime that unfortunately plagues the country only adds to the problems, and many public hospitals are frequently overcrowded. Low funding from the Jamaican government and scarcity of qualified personnel due to widespread “brain drain” (a matter we have also discussed in our article on working in Jamaica) are further detrimental factors that make the public healthcare system in Jamaica untrustworthy for locals and expats alike.
However, there is an alternative in the form of private healthcare institutions, which an offer a higher standard of medical care in a better environment, but obviously this comes at a price. Nonetheless, anyone who can afford treatment in private hospitals and/or private health insurance usually opts for it. Most of the local population is unable to pay for private healthcare and health insurance out of their own pocket, further exacerbating the issues with the public hospitals.
Healthcare Standards and Insurance
It’s possible that you might find the healthcare available in Jamaica below the standard you are used to in your home country, and this applies for both public and private institutions. Be aware that a number of serious health conditions cannot be treated on the island, which in a case of emergency may require you to be evacuated, either to your home country or to a closer country with sufficient facilities.
As an expat, it is advisable that you either negotiate full medical insurance from a local insurance company in Jamaica with your employer, or, if you would like even more comprehensive services to be available to you, buy international health insurance before you relocate. This will not only grant you easy access to all private hospitals and clinics on the island, but might also cover the costs of evacuation in case of severe medical issues.
Look After Yourself in Jamaica
Make sure to get your Hepatitis A and B shots before leaving for Jamaica, and keep up to date with routine vaccinations required by your home country, especially MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), diphtheria, and tetanus. It is essential to protect yourself against mosquito bites, due to the presence of both the Zika virus and dengue fever in the country, and non-essential travel to the country is therefore not recommended for pregnant women. There is also a high rate of HIV and AIDS among the Jamaican population, so ensure you take the necessary precautions to prevent transmission.
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