Jamaica Me Crazy or A Misanthrope’s Journey to the Land of Riddim

I didn’t write a solitary word in Jamaica. That’s not to say that I didn’t make a note of everything, but my idea of writing in the jungle was washed away with so much rum and sunshine. I didn’t do any work of any sort and it didn’t take long for me to stop caring. Jamaica isn’t a place for work in the conventional sense, it’s a study in humanity and in its current state, the layers are as varied as the foliage.

Jamaica for many years held the same allure as Holland: that is, none whatsoever. A flock of stinking tourists, blubbering through tea-stained eyes held no interest. As was the case with Holland, I was mistaken. Jamaica is a land of heat and poverty, music and joy. The sea is warm, the weather always potentially vicious. The money has rolled in from abroad to create enormous monstrosities along the beach where the bloated and browned come to sip punch and smoke pot with the moronic and obvious secretiveness of teenagers. Not far are the half built houses of the natives, the benches lining the streets, the goats and dogs and motorcyclists giddily dancing along the streets just inches away from haphazard automobiles.

Fortunately, I made my stay in a couples only, bungalow-strewn jungle retreat across the street from its own small beach. The jungle never sleeps and at no point did I suffer the screech of children and miserable scolding parents. Being an all-inclusive situation, I appreciate the hypocrisy of my disdain for the large resorts. Still I hold to my judgments. I formed relationships, was sold nothing, ate wonderful food and learned from locals where the locals live and what they do for fun. What they feel is wrong with their country (corruption) and what they love (most everything else), but first on the docket was what brought me to Jamaica: I needed a vacation.

Getting settled in was a simple matter of fact. The bungalow was cozy and comfortable. There was no panes in the windows, rather mesh and plantation shutters. The bathrooms were small but updated nicely. The light was dim and the entirety of the space consisted of studio, bathroom and lanai. These cottages were originally built to house white miners in the 1940′s though now the compound passes seamlessly for the boutique tourist establishment that it is.  Still, there was an obvious balance to the place that certainly cultivated charm; a balance of resort and gentleman camping that could never pass off as roughing it, though also falls far short from the amenities of more moneyed establishments.

First activity was the beach. Bloody Bay is serene and smooth, the water bathtub-warm with practically nonexistent surf. Each hotel has its own section roughly cordoned off by a rope and buoy system, though nothing impedes walking the length of the beach save a stone barrier near the southernmost curve. Peddlers pass and lackadaisically hawk their wares, seemingly uninterested past initial contact if you buy or not. I opened with the tourist drink of rum punch which was sugary and approachable. I quickly switched to rum and Ting, the local grapefruit soda. And true to the local saying: rum and Ting does indeed go with everything.

There is a bar and grill on the beach where one can grab a burger, jerk cheesy fries, fruit salad and a ubiquitous Red Stripe. There are also plenty of activities for the restless, such as snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing, fishing and parasailing. For those packing penicillin and a nostalgia for Spring Break, there is the “Wild Thing” a party boat equipped with a waterslide, two trampolines and a dancing staff blasting loud and redundant reggae. I cannot give a firsthand account of life aboard the Wild Thing save an interesting anecdote that goes as follows:

There is a nearby tourist trap called Rick’s Café where people go to spend money and either pay a Jamaican to, or jump themselves from the cliff from atop where the café sits. A while back a wedding party decided to take the Wild Thing out to Ricks, partaking of the local drugs and copious amounts of alcohol.

Upon reaching Ricks, one of the more inebriated of the grooms’ party decided he would like to jump from the thirty foot cliff. A perfectly acceptable activity, though it’s made clear that one jumps at their own risk. And feet first. Apparently the warning signs are everywhere and clearly visible.

This particular gentleman decided he was up to the challenge and dove from the cliff only to emerge bumping against the rocks in a prone state. Apparently the corpse sloshed around in the surf like this for a few minutes before the staff realized the situation. The drunken and stoned crowd evidently didn’t have much of a reaction as the lifeguards fished him out and rushed the body to the hospital via taxi, ostensibly under the guise that there was still hope of reviving him.

This was relayed to me by a pipe layer from Illinois and his wife who were on their third visit to Negril.

Now I have to way of confirming the validity of the story, but what I saw of the party tourists I have no reason to doubt. I have heard of many such stories over the years of tourists sustaining bodily harm or even dying whether by mere accident or stupidity. From what I saw of the scene at Rick’s driving by days later, coupled with the nearly daily distraction of the Wild Thing boarding party goes, a cliff jumper snapping his neck makes as much sense as a hiker rolling his ankle.

Growing tired of the same scenery after a few days I ventured out in the capable hands of Lloyd, a gregarious former military man-cum-tour guide who I quickly learned seems to know everyone on the island. For $150 American he will take you to a semi-secluded destination I had learned about known as Mayfield Falls. I politely asked to have as much of a cultural sightseeing as possible and was in no way disappointed.

The Mayfield Falls are tucked away up in the mountains outside Negril. About an hour drive, we wound through the narrow streets and got a fair view of what life must truly be like in Jamaica. There were people out on the street every step of the drive up into the jungle. There is no part of the island that I experienced that isn’t teeming with life. The roads are treacherous with potholes, sporadic traffic and other obstacles, but Lloyd made the drive look absurdly easy. Winding up the hills the marshes and grasslands were overwhelmed Mangos, bananas, African Tulips and among the trees massive bamboo groves, bushes and ferns of every sort.

Reaching the village outside the falls had a compound feel. This is an insulated community and as I signed up for the hike was immediately up-sold to purchase lunch – which I did – at nearly $16 for snapper. I found this exorbitant and Lloyd quickly talked the woman down to a more reasonable price. I soon learned that all the tourist money goes to sustaining the villagers and I gladly made up for the difference later. I suppose that being transparent and simply charging a few dollars and asking for donations either hasn’t been tried or has met with unsatisfactory results. Either way, charitable as many of us are, if the motives are clear… but I digress. Once introduced to our guide Dwight, we set off across the bamboo bridge and down into the water.

Your humble correspondent won’t weigh down the piece with the myriad details that make the Mayfield Falls worth visiting. Sufficed to say, it’s a unique experience and if one is fortunate to not go as part of a group – which was my luck – that experience is exponentially better. The pools, the river jumping, he underwater tunnel, not to mention the sheer magnificence of the environment growing along the banks have to be witnessed firsthand. On the hike back to the village Dwight talked about the flora and the curious absence of fauna (there are few animals native to Jamaica that exist today; the largest – and imported – predator being the mongoose) and shed the aforementioned light on the people of Mayfield Falls. They are private and wish to remain so, yet they depend on tourist dollars. A sad conundrum around the world as these experiences dwindle with exposure.

On the tour back to town Lloyd talked about the neighborhoods, took us into the wealth of Orange Hill, showed where the foreign currencies are spent and ended at the westernmost point of Negril where the island gives way to rocky cliffs. Being close to sundown we landed at Whoopee’s for a drink. This was to be my final tourist-free experience of the trip. The sun went down and as we made our way back to the resort, the people came out. Hordes of them; natives, tourists, rich, poor, cops, kids, drunk, hobbled. The trip back was a trip indeed. This is where we passed Rick’s with its slew of waiting buses, The Caves, the clubs, Sandals, Riu and the rest of the shit show. This is the Jamaica that brings people to Jamaica. This is the Jamaica that my elitist attitude makes no subscription to. A necessary evil and seemingly more burdensome to me that to the people whose homes are overrun by the throbbing mobs. Yet this is the way it goes.

The rest of the trip was spent near the resort, watching the sea, strolling the beach, swimming and meeting people from all walks of life. I stand by my opinion that where I was fortunate to land was the least overwhelming of the other resorts I saw, and most of the other guests found that aspect the most charming as well. One solid foray out hardly counts as an adventure, but truthfully I didn’t come for adventure, I came to relax. The taste I got will certainly bring me back and I can’t stop singing praises to the wonderful people of the island. Never an optimist, I’m certain the days of a true experience are numbered. Whether that means more difficult to find or whether the plastic pantomime will stomp it out entirely, I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is that the passion of the island – the “riddim’” as they call it – won’t ever be eradicated as long as the Jamaican people exist.

I wanted to write about Jamaica while in Jamaica but I felt I would miss something. Perhaps this is masturbatory, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I spent as much time outdoors and experiencing as much of the pleasure the immediate part of the  island has to offer. It’s easy to sit and speculate and digest, but that’s what the wretched nineteen hour (multiple layovers) journey home was for. I leave you now a torn man. Don’t go to Jamaica because you might ruin it. Do go to Jamaica because they need you and if you truly want a great experience, all you have to do is ask.

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