Kingston, Jamaica Report of what it's like to live there - 12/15/13
Personal Experiences from Kingston, Jamaica
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Yes, first expat experience.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Midwestern US. 2 hour flight to Miami, and then on to home. It's easy to get to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, but apart from that it's hard to get anywhere that doesn't have a large Jamaican population. Boston, NYC and DC are easy, the midwest and the East coast are expensive. Sometimes you can get charter flights from MoBay during the tourist season, but even that is tough. Delta just entered the market, so that might bring costs down a bit. It's much harder to get around the Caribbean or off the island in general than I had anticipated.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is nice -- townhouses, mostly, and apartments. All have pools. Commute times are 15-45 minutes, depending on whether it's raining or not.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Expensive. Especially anything that's a cold-season veggie in the U.S. Pork and beef are very expensive compared to U.S. prices, and if you're in to sausage or smoked meats, the availability is very limited. Chicken is widely available and great, but also spendy in comparison to the U.S. Local vegetables (cabbage, carrot, 'Irish' potato, sweet potato, green beans, tomatoes when they're in season) are reasonably inexpensive. Fresh herbs are down-right cheap. Dairy -- milk, yogurt, cheese of all types -- is expensive. Fresh milk is about US$5 per half-gallon, UHT milk is US$2.75 per litre. Bring laundry detergent if you can, other cleaning products are fairly reasonable.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Canned tomatoes and beans, which are CRAZY expensive here. Laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, sheets and towels. More toys and things for the kids to do as they don't get out as much here as at home.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Burger King and Wendy's are here, about the same price as the U.S. There's a TGIFridays in Kingston, which is expensive and fairly lousy. That's about it for American chains. Scotchies is great for Jerk Chicken, there are a number of good Middle Eastern places, two decent Indian restaurants, a couple of sushi/japanese places. Most of the restaurants are not on main streets, but on side streets, so it's really hard to stumble upon good places to eat -- you've got to know someone who knows someone. Tripadvisor, weirdly, is good for this.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Everyone has ants -- the wee little ones. People complain about the mosquitoes, but they're nothing compared to what I'm used to in the Midwest. Of course, the ones at home don't carry Dengue, either. But not bad.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Through the Embassy. DHL and Fedex both deliver here, though, and package mail can be shipped either way.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Embassy families usually pay about US$25/day for domestic help and US$35/week for gardeners. We overpay SIGNIFICANTLY compared to locals. Nannies get about US$400/month usually.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Available, most complexes have a small gym on site. There are bigger ones available, but they're fairly expensive (US$100/month).
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
You can, but credit card cloning/skimming is a thing that happens, even in the nice expat grocery stores. ATMs are reasonable, but most won't handle Mastercard, only Visa.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
All of them? English language post. :)
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
They speak English here, but picking up some Jamaican slang is helpful.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I don't see a lot of ramps or accessibility around town, but I think you could probably make a reasonable go of it.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
No trains. There are buses and they're cheapish, but you can't take them. Taxis exist, and you can use approved companies. They're reasonable.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Bring something with a high ground clearance, the pot-holes here are legendary, especially outside of Kingston. We've never really used our 4-wheel drive, but I'm glad we have it nonetheless.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. It's expensive (US$75-100/month) and fairly reliable. It goes out maybe once a month, for 4-6 hours?
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
You've got a choice between digicel and LIME and just about everyone uses Digicel. Bring your own phone, they're expensive and technologically behind here -- Blackberry is still the 'cool' brand. But easy and cheap to set up.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Pets are not allowed, except with some complicated quarantine system involving sending them to the UK for 6 months first. Not a good choice for those with pets.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Fairly casual. Work is dresses and cardigans over suits most of the time. For women, the more upper-class Jamaicans tend to be more covered up and chose capris or pants over shorts -- not that you have to do likewise, but it's something to be aware of as you pack. Also, bring your wardrobe or plan to order it online. There are very few clothes shopping opportunities on the island.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes. Jamaica is #4 in the world for per-capital murder rate. Most of the crime is intra-community violence tied to politics and the drug trade, but there's plenty of opportunistic crime as well. Violence can pop up on very short notice here, so you've always got to be careful of where you are and who is around you. It limits your ability to get out among Jamaican society pretty heavily.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care for basic stuff -- infections, fevers, sprained ankles, etc. -- is good and cheap. Doctor's visits run US$20-30. Prescriptions can get expensive and doctors tend to over-prescribe (5 different medications for a sinus infection is common). Bring cold medicine, especially for kids, with from the States.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality is not bad, but it's not great. They burn trash here, and do a lot of slow-char to make coal and ash for farming, so if you're sensitive to smoke that would be a problem. Allergies seem to be bad here, especially during the fall.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
85F and sunny. Rains during the hurricane season, mostly in the afternoon, usually for a couple of hours.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are two major international schools here: Hillel and AISK. While I think your kids would get a good education, meeting or exceeding U.S. standards at both, make sure to tour each one as they've got very different standards and vibes between the two.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Hillel has resource teachers that work both with gifted and talented students and with students with academic special needs. There are speech therapists available, but it would be a referral, not in school. We have not been able to find an occupational therapist here.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Available, but we didn't use them. Nannies are very common and affordable, and tend to be quite good.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, there's tons sports through both of the schools, starting from the younger grades. There's also football (soccer) and cricket through associations here in Jamaica.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There are a lot of expats here, but the 'community' is very splintered and the American community keeps to it's self-- tends to use different schools and socialize apart from other missions/communities. That said, morale seems to be good over all.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Lots of hanging out at the pool, especially for families. Movie nights, house parties, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a good city for people who can make their own fun, regardless of whether you've got children, a spouse, etc.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
NO. Jamaica is probably the single most homophobic country in the western hemisphere, and you can feel that and see that, even in the staff at the Embassy. It would be a very, very uncomfortable tour, likely including some fear for your personal safety unless you stayed scrupulously in the closet. I would NOT recommend coming here if you are LGBT.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not really -- Jamaicans really feel their "Out of Many, One people" motto.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Feeding hummingbirds outside of Montego Bay. Lots of great beach days and family vacation to the North Coast.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The majority of the social life here is centered around pool parties and 'hanging out'. We've enjoyed driving out for picnics, playing in the river at the Castleton Botanical Gardens, and lots of day trips on the weekends. There is very little to do in the immediate Kingston area.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not a lot of handicrafts here -- some wood carving, and some interesting painters, but that's about it.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's 85F and sunny year round, basically. The Jamaicans are an incredibly warm and welcoming culture. There are great beaches and tourism opportunities on the North coast.
10. Can you save money?
Yes -- but factor in the need to get out of Kingston and travel to really enjoy the country. You'll spend more than you planned on for hotels, villa rentals and the like.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How little there is to do for a family in Kingston -- seriously, it's the Bob Marley Museum, a bad zoo and Devon House, and that's it. We'd have been much more able to roll with it if we had been prepared.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, we would. We'd just like to have our eyes a little more open.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes, expectations of being entertained and tropical island fantasies.
4. But don't forget your:
Pool toys, video games, books, and things to entertain yourself.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica
-- depressing, but gives you a feel for the Jamaica outside of the tourist brochures.