09 June 2013 | 17 35'N:80 42'W, Caribbean sea
We left Montego Bay, Jamaica on Saturday afternoon June8, on our way to Guatemala, the hurricane safe storage for the summer; a 3 to 4 day passage.
Jamaica is an interesting and little known place to us, we wanted to experience as much as possible given our short time available to visit. The vast majority of visitors to Jamaica arrive by airplane or cruise ship, and stay comfortably within their gated resort or airconditioned tour bus. To see the real Jamaica, we hired a car and driver (through Budget car rental) and set out on a rough journey crossing the island country, choosing our route as we went based on my research and suggestions from the driver; we had a different driver every day. Day 1, Andrew, born and raised in the inland area of 9-Mile, also the location of the Bob Marley Mausoleum. We wanted to visit a Bob Marley exhibit, so Andrew pointed us towards his childhood village. Other than the new north coast highway, most of the roads in Jamaica are rough and twisty, sometimes I wondered if they had received any maintenance since the British granted Jamaica independence 50 years ago. Like many Jamaicans, Andrew was an aggressive driver, charging down these rough roads with foot on the floor, dodging pedestrians, goats, dogs, abandoned cars, etc., and generally honking at everything that moved. We arrived just fine and entered the surreal world of Rastafari and Marley Worship. Andrew warned us that ganja smoking is illegal in general, however in this Jamaican National Heritage Site it was, to say the least, tolerated. The whole thing was quite a spectacle put on for tourism, but also very illuminating on the Jamaican culture honoring Bob Marley. There seems to be no national figure of any political, military, or cultural significance that is as important to Jamaicans as Bob. We were of course led through multiple gift shops and paused at the bar, where we sucked down a three-color Rastafarian liquor shot (that's top to bottom green, yellow, and red in case you need a reminder) with flaming rum on top, the technique being to plunge a straw through the flame and start suck ing asap so that the flame did not melt the straw. We passed a small stage where a group of Rastafari were jammin' to Bob's reggae music, these guys were quite the collection of other-worldly characters. Then up a few steps to a small hut where Bob was born and lived part of his life, and adjacent to it two small buildings holding the bodies of Bob and his mother. In between is a rock, known as Mt Zion, where Bob sat and meditated (remember the line, "gettin' high on, Mt. Zion..." yeah right there). In his house is the bed where many of his 19 children were fathered (to 7 or so women), cue "we'll share the shelter of my single bed..." from Legend: Is This Love. So sacred are these places that we were required to remove our shoes when entering any of the buildings. Our Rastafari guide was a delight, quivering with excitement while talking about being right where the man lived and touching the things he touched, and breaking into song regularly. Clearly, Marley died whi le on top, his legend is truly enduring, and endearing to the Jamaicans, plus teenage boys world wide ;-)
The Marley tour did not stop there; the following day we drove through Trenchtown, a Kingston neighborhood where Marley spent much of his time, and toured Tuff Gong, a recording studio and vinyl record pressing plant. Bob was denied access to the Tuff Gong recording studio while he was alive, and he vowed to own it one day. Sadly he never lived to see the dream realized, however it is owned by his estate now. Nick asked in the gift shop if he could buy a vinyl album, "ya man" of course was the reply, and we were led into a dark back room loaded with fresh copies of dozens of albums recorded and pressed right there. Nick was ecstatic, and now preciously clutches three newly acquired albums. We also drove by, but did not enter, the Bob Marley Museum and his actual recording studio in Kingston; time was short, and I thought it good to leave something for Nick to look forward to some other day.
I asked our second driver, a Kingston native, to show us the high and low lights of the town. Kingston is known for extreme violence in some neighborhoods, and we calmly drove through the worst of them, seeing bullet ridden buildings, cardboard and corrugated steel homeless shacks, dimly lit shops, emaciated people; very humbling display of extreme poverty. Poverty in general seemed to be more common through out the real Jamaica than I had expected. All the twisty mountainous roads we drove were loosely lined with rickety shacks, abandoned cars, stray dogs. Rare was any sign of minimal decent living, at least among the locals. Let me be clear, though, that extensive mansions and elaborate resorts do exist, owned by and for foreigners. We did drive through New Kingston, a business center which resembles any modern large city.
I don't believe I met a single non-African Jamaican. What does a white guy with a camera look like in Jamaica? **TOURIST**!! Wherever we walked on the streets, we were hustling targets. These men of the streets generally made a friendly presence, but aggressive, offering to sell us something we really want, to take us somewhere, give advice, all for a fee, or simply begging. It was beyond annoying, and we learned to be friendly but firm in return, no thanks, lil' more time, mon. Many experiences were fun, some annoying, a few negative. We survived, learned, and experienced a real piece of real Jamaica.
Our second and last night on the road we stayed in Port Antonio, on the north east coast. It was an intended port for us while sailing, but time did not allow us to get there. Port Antonio is a charming village, still quite a low standard of living, but with relatively little tourism, the street hustling was a bit lower key. We had a lot of fun in the craft market. Women operated tiny produce stands and men offered other goods, artwork, crafts, carvings, still a hustling and bargaining scene here but friendly. I have some great carvings, it will be the closest to African art I will see in a long time. There was only one quality sit-down restaurant that we found, which was delightful with a live band playing for a while.
Let's not forget the jerk chicken! Every day for lunch, mon. "Jerk Centers" as they are called, look much like a road side shack but are quality establishments, cooking dozens or hundreds of chickens daily, plus pork, over an open wood grill, with the famous jerk seasoning. Unlike American renditions of jerk seasoning, it is not hot, just a touch of pepper, but delightful nutmeg, allspice, and other flavors blended with the smoke of pimento wood. This food is very satisfying, and we have loaded Hekla's fridge for the passage to Guatemala with jerk. Beyond jerk, the food scene is scary, and coffee pretty much non-existent, except for the famous Blue Mountain small farm coffee, sold to tourists (including me).
Why do tourists flock to Jamaica? I don't know. Gated resorts exist in many Caribbean islands, and the flavor of Jamaican resorts differs little from the others. Sailing? There are some nice anchorages and bay sailing, but a far cry from the tropical delights of Belize. Would I go back? Probably not, there is so much to see in the rest of the world, and the limited access to quality food and facilities outside of the resorts makes independent travel challenging, for the rewards received. Were we rewarded for our visit? Absolutely! There is a definite charm and richness to the culture, and rugged beauty of this mountainous island; we are enriched from our interactions with the community. Jamaica is the clear high spot of Nick's and my brief sailing loop of the western Caribbean. Thanks for reading my long post. Back in Colorado next weekend.
Photo: chicken at Scotchies Jerk Center, Montego Bay