My recent trip to Jamaica was filled with so many memories that it’s hard not to recount them all. Everything from the picturesque beaches to the inventive culinary scene is impressive, not to mention extremely appealing to millennials. During my short but sweet stay in Jamaica I explored both Negril and Montego Bay. Although they are only about an hour or so apart by car, they felt very distinct from each other so I can only imagine what the rest of Jamaica has to offer travelers.
Many people heading to Jamaica spend a good amount of their time relaxing at the all-inclusive resorts and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, I wanted to highlight a few additional ways to see a more cultural side of Jamaica. As tempting as it is to sleep by the beach all day drinking piña coladas (don’t worry, I’ve been there!) spend at least a day or two getting out and immersing yourself in the colorful culture waiting just outside your hotel’s door.
Volunteering at the Negril All Age School
By far the most rewarding experience while in Jamaica was getting to spend a few hours volunteering at the Negril All Age School. Whether you’re a seasoned volunteer or simply looking to dip your toes into the field while on vacation, this program makes it easy for all travelers to get involved at some level. We spent time with the children during their recess and then broke up into pairs and read to the students. I was a little nervous at first but I left feeling really invigorated. In fact, I didn’t want to leave. When they all hugged me at the end of class, I felt so incredibly loved.
Back in the day (high school) I spend my summers lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons. Although that was a decade ago, it took a visit to this local school to make me realize just how much I miss working with kids. It also was another perfect example of how happiness has little to do with one’s physical possessions and much more to do with one’s outlook on life. As I went from classroom to classroom, I couldn’t help but compare their humble school to my upper-middle class elementary school. The two couldn’t have been more different and yet the students at Negril All Age School looked a whole lot more content than I remember being at their age.
I might have been there to teach them, but it was ultimately these students who taught me a much more profound lesson. For anyone interested in getting involved during their stay, you can reserve your volunteer spot through the Rockhouse Foundation. Visitors to Jamaica (not just the hotel itself) can contact them by phone or email and ask to help out at the school Monday through Friday. Something worth noting is that many hotels have their own community programs, so it wouldn’t hurt to ask the hotel you’re staying at about what programs they offer.
Eating Jamaican jerk at Murphy’s
Right after our volunteering experience we slowed things down with a stop at Murphy’s for a taste of Jamaican jerk. He was nice enough to open early just for us and I’m so glad he did. Our group each ordered something different on the menu and everyone raved about their food. I ordered the jerk chicken, which came with a beautifully styled tomato on top, this delicious donut-type dessert called festival (it really is a party in your mouth!) and some fresh fruit. In true Jamaican fashion, I flushed it all down with a Red Stripe.
After gobbling down our food like nobody’s business, Murphy swung by to see how we liked everything. As it turns out, Murphy’s dad originally started the restaurant, so he’s been working there his whole life. He also lives on the property and grows ackee and mango trees in the backyard. Opting to not use black pepper, Murphy makes his own curry, jerk and other spices from the plants on his property. More information can be found on his Facebook page and make sure to stop by during opening hours (2-10pm daily).
What I appreciated most about our time at Murphy’s was how approachable he was and how passionate he is about his craft. Clearly talented, his laid-back vibe and easy going nature helps create an all-around comfortable atmosphere. I wandered around the grounds while waiting for our meal and it really feels like you’re eating in someone’s home rather than a restaurant.
Visiting a Traditional Rastafarian Village (complete with jam session)
Jamaica is the land of Bob Marley and there are plenty of ways to dabble in the reggae arts. Our group spent a few hours at a traditional Rastafarian village. This, along with the volunteering, are the most rewarding ways to delve deeper into Jamaican culture in my opinion. When I first learned that we were going to be meeting some Rastafaris, I was intrigued but also unsure as to how authentic this would feel. Sometimes mass tourism can take away the “realness” of a place but luckily this was not the case at all at the village.
After learning about some of the Rastafarian beliefs and ways of living, we followed our guide across a creek and through a grassy trail. Along the way he pointed out the different trees and what purpose each served. There was one tree that apparently hints at when a rainstorm will hit. It made me realize how powerful nature is and how much we can learn from the sights and sounds around us. Finally, we entered a quiet village area where there were members building local crafts, preparing vegetarian dishes and a few people playing the drums.
Next on the agenda was a leisurely tour through the grounds, it was time to listen to our new friends play some music. After about three songs, the band members invited us to the stage to contribute to the next few songs. I look pretty excited to be up there, don’t I? Before leaving, I stopped by the craft market to do some shopping. Similar to the Negril All Age School, I found it hard to leave this serene oasis in the middle of Jamaica.
Megan Eileen McDonough
Megan Eileen McDonough is a New York City-based freelance writer the founder of Bohemian Trails, a blog covering global lifestyle trends for the savvy and stylish traveler. Her cultural escapades have taken her to Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and across the United States. Megan’s work has appeared on Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, US Airways and USA Today among others.