It's easy to catch a major case of FOMO when following that stream of amazingly glamorous IG photos with #TravelGoals in the captions. Well-edited, eye-catching, fantasy-enticing imagery will have you booking your next trip to a beautiful resort in Greece, Jamaica, Iceland, or Brazil so you can recreate those same memories for yourself.
If you can make that luxury trek, go for it. I've enjoyed more than a few. Business trips and family vacations have spoiled me over the years, and though the flights may have been coach or business class, the accommodations were always four- or five-star. I'd not even fathomed otherwise---until this past May.
How did I---a bou-ghetto, hell-no-to-a-motel, hate-bugs-and-germs, compliments-to-the-chef kind of girl---end up in a small coastal town in Jamaica, walking barefoot through grass that chickens just tread in, sipping goat-head soup, washing my own laundry in a bucket of pipe water, and taking showers in an outhouse?
God led me on the 30-day adventure of a lifetime, to a place called Savanna-la-mar, AKA Sav, where I got to consult, write, and learn more about life in Jamaica beyond the cruise ports. My lodging was a beautiful compound that included rustic one-room cabins, free Wifi, and a communal way of life, where everyone---except for the owner----pretty much shared resources. (He and his wife lived in the larger main house with a staff and the usual luxuries.)
I welcomed the experience because my spirit needed to be reinvigorated after dealing with the challenges of rebounding from a few business and financial failures. I wanted something off the beaten path, where I could be raw and real and surround myself with people who could care less about what makeup I was wearing, how many clients I had, or what wig I was wearing. I'm so glad I did, because after the life-changing experience, I now favor a vacation off the beaten path over a frou-frou resort stay any day.
Here are 5 damn good reasons why:
I learned soul-stirring, transformative lessons about overcoming fears and anxiety.
There's something about being butt-naked in an outdoor shower among tree frogs, mosquitos, and stray dogs that will test your courage and inner strength. I was slightly a germaphobe, and I'm truly not a fan of bugs or animals. Each day, I was forced to let go of my inhibitions. (Hey, in 90-degree weather, showers are not something you want to skip due to a few fears.) My host took me to Venture River in Westmoreland, where many of the locals bathe and swim, and after while, I no longer even noticed or cared about the outdoor elements. I developed a free-thinking attitude that still helps me in facing issues of anxiety and fear in my personal and professional life.
I learned how to stretch a dollar and have fun without breaking the bank.
I once loved spending a pretty penny on an excursion, 3-course buffet, or Ledo-deck party, but, after becoming a freelancer and budding entrepreneur, I really could no longer afford these experiences. My network and loved ones chipped in to help me with the travel expenses not covered by my host for this trip, and to honor that, I made sure to buy groceries and seek free options for leisure. My host took me to beautiful free-access beaches like Negril Beach Park, where we could take fresh $2 sweet cocoabread and delicious saltfish we bought back in Sav from a seller affectionately called CocoaMan, and stop for $3 Red Stripes at local mom-and-pop shops, many owned by women. (One of my favorites was located on Archer Lane in a nearby town in Negril called Red Ground, and I loved that we were supporting women entrepreneurs.)
Bourbon Beach has free live entertainment and an amazing ambiance at night, and the water is clear, cool, and inviting. My host would cook authentic brown-stew chicken or my favorite curry shrimp with white rice on an outdoor stove, and we'd share meals under the moonlight with the sound of music coming from another local hangout I loved, the Uniqek Car Wash, Bar & Grill. That spot has plenty of Jamaica's finest white rum for a good price, a fun karaoke night where the locals are like family, and a chill vibe. We bought fresh loaves of hard-dough bread from Hammond's Pastry Place and enjoyed fruit, herbs, and veggies picked straight from trees or sold by local farmers, so there were few fears of additives in what I was eating.
I learned important lessons on discipline and flexibility.
I've had the pleasure of having a laundry machine and dryer within walking distance or in the homes I've lived in, so washing jeans, sheets and party dresses by hand can be humbling. There were monsoon-like rains and flooding for the first two weeks I was in Sav, so if I waited too long to wash my laundry, it might not get done or the clothes might get soaked and I'd have to wait another day to wear a favorite pair of shorts. I'd have to wake early to catch tea or breakfast being served, and I had to time my writing and meetings around weather delays and be prepared for power outages. When you are forced to improvise (or you lose work due to not being prepared,) you quickly learn how to take more initiative and rise earlier to get important things done.
I had the freedom to be rawly me without feeling pressure to be refined or well-behaved.
I don't know about you, but I've never been able to skinny dip in a body of water at a resort before. I've always presented an image that I felt matched the five-star status and vibe of a resort. In Sav, I could walk around braless and wear beat-down shorts and my natural curly 'fro without feeling like I was out of place or out of order. I could be barefoot, listen to the latest reggae and dancehall tunes, watch a bike show, and support black- and women-owned businesses with ease. I could relate with everyday people who may not have the degrees, the big houses, and the high-powered positions people I'm used to vacationing with have, but could be the most welcoming, genuine, giving, and authentic people to be around. They had stories that empowered and inspired me, defying odds with a smile, tenacity, and determination to enjoy the simple things in life.
I could connect spiritually with myself and God, and the creative juices were on steroids.
At a resort, there's a lot of noise: the activities, the cocktails, the tourists. In Sav, I'd listen to the croaking of the tree frogs, or sit silently during a storm that caused the power to go off. My mind could connect with God in a way that wasn't possible for me during other travel experiences. Sometimes the AC would go out, and I'd be forced to focus on everything but the heat. I began writing poetry---something I hadn't done in 20 years---and I gained inspiration from being forced to be quiet, forced to look at the bigger picture, forced to endure and embrace things I had not before. As cliche as it may sound, I began to connect with the person I was before the deadlines, the pressures of career climbs, and the anxiety that can come with adulting. I could tap into the child in me---someone who was hopeful, fearless, and optimistic; someone who didn't fear bugs, being barefoot, or being naked.
I can't wait for my next adventure off the beaten path. I now love challenging myself and pushing my boundaries. Savannah-la-Mar has a special place in my heart that no five-star resort experience could compete with.
I'd encourage any woman who is trying to find freedom, authentic connection and spiritual growth to seek out travel experiences that force her out of her comfort zone and challenge her norms. Doing so saved my life and sparked a renewed self that I'm proud to continue nurturing. I was able to get back to the authentic Janell, rawly accepting who I am and embracing the journey to who I am to become.