Back to Jamaica

Mar. 21, 2016


Back to Jamaica 

Thursday night reggae parties at Chester's bar in Stony Brook, Long Island in, were in vogue in the mid-'70s. Young Jamaicans from Brooklyn came to enjoy the reggae rhythms of the Full Hand Band and form friendships with the young college girls. My beautiful Latvian dance partner, Elsa, had just returned from a vacation in Jamaica and was singing its praises. "Everything was more beautiful in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. My vacation in Negril was the best vacation I've ever taken." As Elsa described the white sand beaches, waterfalls, and decadent resorts, I stood there drooling, yearning for her strange experiences. I was outright envious. She'd tasted more of the fruits of Jamaica than I ever had growing up dirt-poor in the slums of Kingston. I'd heard a little about these wonders, but I was never lucky to experience them. At the end of our conversation, I decided I would return to Jamaica, this time as a tourist, and sample some of the beauties of my home. 

I booked a ticket to Montego Bay on Air Jamaica Airlines because I wanted to taste that Jamaican flavor as soon as I stepped on the plane. Giddy with anticipation, I arrived at Kennedy airport only to discover that Air Jamaica was on strike. The terminal was a chaotic buzz of people losing their tempers. They were shouting about losing precious vacation time and threatening to sue the airline or any Jamaican they could find. As I sat quietly in the corner of the terminal, I worried that I might not get to experience my birthright because of this poorly timed-strike. To my relief, my travel agent called to assure me that even though there was a strike, her agency had a chartered plane to take us to Jamaica in a few hours. Relieved, I continued to watch the circus of upset on display around me. After a four-hour wait, an Air Canada 707 showed up to take us to Jamaica. We boarded the jet, and smiling attendants welcomed us with alcoholic drinks and snacks. The day's false starts drifted away, and I quickly replaced them with fantasies of beautiful tan bodies, excellent food, and pulsating rhythms. 

 Our first stop was Kingston, my hometown. I would typically get off here, but this time, I only left the plane for a moment on the stopover to call friends. As I searched for a phone, I could hear the frustrated chatter of other tourists stranded by the strike in Kingston, far from their vacation destinations. The aggravated travelers spilled out of the terminal and onto the tarmac, headed straight for our plane. When I returned to the aircraft, the impatient tourist had taken over the plane. A panicked flight attendant shouted, "If you don't have a ticket, you must leave!" No one budged. Then, the flight attendant asked the Jamaicans to exit the aircraft and give their seats to a visitor. I considered that option but realized I would not have my luggage, so I decided against it. The standoff continued until the flight attendant noticed a man smoking in his seat. She screamed, "Are you crazy? We are sitting on gallons of gasoline, and your cigarette could blow us all up." Those were the magic words. People streamed off the plane. The crowd dispersed in a few minutes, and our half-empty plane took off to Montego Bay. 

We landed in Montego Bay late that night at a dark, quiet airport. I picked up my luggage and went searching for a ride to Negril. At this point, I encountered an unexpected dilemma. When I arrived at the buses with my bags, the drivers did not know how to treat me. I acted like a tourist, but I spoke like a native. I could see the first driver mulling it over. Should he charge me the higher tourist price or, the lower Jamaican fee? This incident reminded me of being a youngster in Kingston; many times, I was treated one way if I was seen as poor and another if I was middle class. At this point, I was getting irritated. It had been a long journey with many bumps along the way, but after using some familiar Jamaican curse words in our exchange, the driver decided on the Jamaican price. Shortly we were on our way to one of the most popular vacation destinations on Jamaica's western tip, about 60 miles from Montego Bay. We headed for Negril, well known for its seven miles of white sand beaches and wild parties. Negril was where my friend Elsa got her groove back, and I couldn't wait to get there.  


Soon we were traveling next to the beach, where I could barely make out palm trees waving in the dark. I closed my eyes, opened them, and closed them again. Here I was on my way to Negril, where everything goes. I could barely believe it. On the inside, I was still that little boy who grew up in the shanty towns of Kingston, miserable, lonely, and unwelcome. On the outside, I was an Americanized tourist with a Jamaican accent on his way to wild parties in Negril. I was giddy with excitement and listened fondly to the rhythms of the Caribbean Sea as it beat against the shore just a few yards from the bus. The bus driver sang softly to Gospel music flowing out of his radio. My fellow tourists were excited too. They were gasping at the sights as they passed outside our windows. Then, without warning, the bus jerked and swerved right and then to the left, and before I could see what happened, I heard, 'squash, squash!' I looked out the window and saw half a dozen crushed crabs in our wake. I looked back towards the bus driver and was shocked to see him laughing as he continued to drive the bus over crabs as they crossed the road from the beach. The irony of the moment gave me a stomach ache. Maybe it is just me, but I could not understand why a man would intentionally kill crabs with his bus for entertainment while praising the Lord.   

Without further indecent, we arrived at the Hedonism resort at the edge of Negril. All the other visitors disembarked, leaving me alone on the bus. I had no place to stay at this late hour, so I turned to the driver for help. He said he had a friend who worked at a hotel further down the beach, and he should be able to get me a room there. The hotel was a medium size resort on the beach side of the street.   The driver accompanied me to the front desk. I asked for a room, and the clerk scrutinized me and said the hotel was sold out. But we both knew he was lying; he wouldn't give a poor Jamaican a room on resort properties. I was relieved when the driver intervened on my behalf, "Give the Mon a place, Mon." The clerk smiled reluctantly and handed me a room key. Again, I felt like a stranger in my home. I could not even get a room without the help of a local bus driver. I thanked the driver, dragged my bags to my room, and immediately fell asleep. 


Breakfast on the Beach 


The next morning the bright sunlight flowing through my window and lively chatter in the hallway woke me up. I peered outside and enjoyed the tropical flowers' exotic green, yellow and red colors. My heart raced. This Jamaica was the Jamaica Elsa described. I got up and ran to the front desk to reserve a week at this heaven of a place. The front desk registration clerk looked at my passport and saw that I had just flown in from the United States the day before. "You are not a local, Mon," he said excitedly, "You must pay the tourist rate." He informed me that the rate I had paid the night before was the wrong price and my new rate would be twice as much. I argued with him, but he would not budge. He pointed out that I was a tourist with a Jamaican passport, which meant a higher rate. I then realized that though there were tremendous benefits to being a tourist, you had to pay for them. So I reluctantly decided to leave the hotel and find accommodations where I could get the Jamaican rate. 

I returned to my room, grabbed my still-packed duffel bag, and headed for the beach. A few people were already frolicking in the crystal clear, inviting waters. Though I wanted to join them, I was hungry and needed to find a cheap place to stay. As I wandered down the beach, my nose solved both problems. The pleasant aroma of Ackee and Saltfish cooking wafted through the beach trees and pulled me to it. I ducked under the branches blocking my way to find a short, middle-aged Jamaican woman bent over a wood fire, stirring a big iron pot full of Ackee and Salt Fish. Ackee and Codfish, called Salt Fish, is Jamaica's national dish, and smelling it brought memories of delicious meals rushing back. I started to salivate like Pavlov's dog. "Give me some of that Ackee, Mon," I requested in a loud, impatient voice. She was happy for the business and served me a full plate with a slice of roasted Breadfruit. Sitting comfortably on a large rock nearby, I started to gobble up my serving of this delicious, long-lost treasure. After a few bites, it dawned on me that this excellent cook might also help me to find a place to stay with the locals. So,  I asked, "Do you know a good place I could stay around here?" "Yes, Mon," she quickly responded. "Miss Mary will take good care of you; her place is just around the corner."   


'Just around the corner,' to a Jamaican, could be miles away, but luckily, in this case, I was just a half mile down the beach when I came across a compound of five huts built near a small house with an outdoor shower. I decided that this must be Miss Mary's place, so I walked across the yard, knocked on the back door, and called out, "Miss Mary! Are you home?" in my best Jamaica dialect. A warm, fat, middle-aged Jamaican woman showed up. "Come in, Mon," she said with a broad smile. I told her I needed a place to stay, and she said, "You can stay here with me." We talked price for a few minutes, and then she took me to one of her many small wooden shacks to settle. "You can have dinner with me whenever you want." She continued." I have fried fish for dinner tonight, and you are certainly welcome to have some with me." Gracefully, I declined because I wanted to spend the evening at the Hedonism Resort further on the beach. She gestured to a shower in the middle of the yard and the outhouse at its edge to complete my orientation. "Where can I keep my passport?" I asked. "It's safe with me," she responded. So I turned over my traveler's checks and passport. "I will get money when I need it," I said. She nodded, and we parted with a smile, a wave, and a final caution. "Keep safe, Mon," she told me. 


The Hedonism Resort

As I walked to find the Hedonism resort, I could hear the reggae rhythms flowing from the Jerk chicken shacks next to the beach. I rocked to the beat as I navigated through the Caribbean surf. I couldn't have been more excited; my heart pounded, and my body was ready to take off in any direction. I didn't have to wait long because my view of the beautiful white sand beach was interrupted by two people in a very unusual dance. As I got closer, I could see this old Jamaican man from the local hills staring at this beautiful female tourist lying naked on the beach. He looked at her like a painting or a fantastic Jamaican sunset. However, the real surprise was she lay there motionless like a manikin in a dress shop. As I walked past, neither of them recognized my presence. I continued up the beach, looking back occasionally to see how the encounter progressed. As long as I could see them, this dance between the observer and the observed continued. This was funny because I expected most people to feel an invasion of privacy instead of a welcomed inspection. I wondered how she would describe her vacation to friends when she returned home. "Wow! Those Jamaican men gave me so much attention."

I walked for over an hour before approaching my destination - the Hedonism resort. Elsa had stayed there on her trip to Jamaica. Directly in front of me, I saw an enclosed section of the beach with a guard sitting at the entrance. I immediately realized that this was the nude beach from Elsa's stories. After a quick assessment, I concluded that the guard was there to keep out the locals, and from my earlier experiences at the hotel, I remembered that there was one set of rules for tourists and another for locals. If I wanted to get on this beach, I had to devise a plan to give the guard the impression that I was a foreigner and not a local. If I spoke, he would immediately classify me as a local, so I decided to strip instead. As I approached him, I took off my shirt, pants, and underwear. When I was in front of him, I was completely naked. He looked at me, smiled, opened the gate, and let me in. I knew he would think I was a tourist because Jamaican in their right mind would never strip in public, and I was right!


The resort was beautiful. Dance classes, beach games, and Jerk chicken washed down with Red Stripe beer. The beach was exquisite, and the water was warm and crystal clear. Palm trees created shade for many of the nude bodies that covered the landscape. The building is new and painted in very festive colors. I remember thinking that this was Elsa's Jamaica. The Jamaica I never saw before. There was a buzz of activity all around me. Some people were snorkeling, and others were watched watching glass glass-bottom. Still, others rode catamaran to Rick's Cafe, the legendary restaurant on the edge of a cliff, where many went to watch divers make acrobatic leaps off the high cliffs into the sea.

After a few drinks of Appleton Special rum, many tourists would jump too. However, I was caught off guard by how many locals mingled with tourists. The Rastafarians, with their long dreadlocks, rigid bodies, and sing-song voices, were in high demand. The Jamaican women were there, too, selling trinkets and offering to braid hair. Even young children ran around. Sitting on the beach at the resort, I focused on a small boy playing next to me. Looking at him, I could not help but wonder about his life. It was evident that he was poor. As I lay there, I started to identify with him. Looking at his torn clothes and bare feet, I began to think about my early days in Kingston. I became curious about how Kingston may look today. The last time I saw Kingston was two years after Jamaica's independence from Britain. I knew the old colonial Kingston but not the new independent Kingston. I wondered if Kingston would be better or worse after ten years of local rule. 


The bus ride to Kingston


I spent the evening at the Hedonism Resort pretending to be an American tourist. I had dinner with a young American couple on the bus the night before. We chatted excitedly over multiple courses of good food and wine as we watched mainstream entertainment, mainly using sexual references for laughs. After dinner, my new friends and I went to the disco. The disco was reserved primarily for tourists, and as I walked through the doors, I knew that my visitor identity was now entirely believable. We danced to the Reggae rhythms until around 3 AM, and as my friends bid me good night, I realized I had a problem.

It was pitch black on the road, and I was not sure I could find Miss Mary's place in the dark. Plus, this was my first night on the Island, and I did not know how safe it would be to walk on the road or the beach at that time of night. After a few minutes of reflection, I decided to find a comfortable spot in the lobby and get some sleep until sunrise, when I could see well enough to find my way home. Early in the morning, the resort security woke me up with a warning, "You better don't sleep here again, Mon." I had blown my cover, and now I had to move on. So, I decided to take a bus ride to Kingston among the local people.

The bus ride to Kingston was a wild adventure. The bus was small and overcrowded, with a fast, seemingly reckless driver and conductor hanging from the back door soliciting more passengers as we moved along. It seemed to me that the bus would never be complete. The conductor's attitude was that it was always space for one more. I was sitting next to a little ten-year-old boy on his way to Kingston on his own, and he was having a rough time on the fast-moving, quick-stopping bus. He threw up on me during one of the sharp turns on this little pot-holed-filled country road.

I was not much better because at one of our stops, as the local merchants surrounded the bus selling food to the passengers, I was overcome by the smell of the spicy shrimp I enjoyed as a child. "Give me a bag of that spicy shrimp, Mon." I could not resist the scent but forgot how hot and spicy they were. I lived in the United States for around ten years, and my constitution was not as strong as it once was. So, about half an hour further down the road, I had to beg the conductor to stop the bus so I could use a toilet in a local shop because I had severe diarrhea.