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Jamaica, yo problem, part one: The island by foot
Also posted on Pajamas Media.
Last week Marathon Pundit went on a vacation to Jamaica.
I only had a general understanding about the place; namely it's warm there, it has beaches (it is an island), its most famous son was Bob Marley--and a lot of people there smoke marijuana, or as the Jamaicans call it, ganja.
Jamaica's unofficial national slogan is, "Jamaica, no problem."
We'll see about that.
This is my first attempt at travel writing. In mainstream newspapers, travel reporting, although at times informative, is not the best place get an honest appraisal of a vacation destination. The goal of a travel writer is to get the reader into a pleasant state of mind, so the many ads in the travel section are closely read, and hopefully, acted upon. In essence, newspaper travel experts are suck-ups to the travel industry. And they have the benefit expense accounts while visiting these exotic destinations.
Whereas I paid for my trip to Jamaica out of my own pocket.
Whose opinion would you trust?
My wife, daughter and I arrived in Jamaica last Wednesday; our hotel was the Wexford Court in Montego Bay, on the north shore of the island. The Wexford is somewhat of an anomaly in Jamaica. The trend in Jamaican vacations is the all-inclusive resort. Guests are fenced into a beachfront property such as Sandals, and everything they need is on the property: Food, drink, shops, recreation, and of course, the beach. At the all-inclusives, the beaches are private. These resorts also have jet-ski rentals, snorkeling areas, and boat tours. People like us staying at a traditional hotel--well, we're on our own for that stuff.
Unless they work there or if they're paying customers, regular Jamaicans aren't allowed in the all-inclusives.
The Wexford is on Montego Bay's "Hip Strip," filled with shops, boutiques, restaurants, and bars. The Hip Strip--its proper name is Gloucester Avenue--is also packed with the people of Mobay, the nickname for Montego Bay. The Hip Strip we learned is also the home of the "Mobay Hustle."
An hour after we got settled at the Wexford, my family and I left the property and walked to the beach across the street. Within a minute, we were approached by locals trying to sell us plastic-bead bracelets. We politely said "no." He persisted. We had to walk away.
Maybe a minute later, a group of three, including a woman who looked like she was in her late teens, approached us, offering to sell us pretty much the same merchandise. The woman was wearing a bikini, with a see-through bikini-bottom that left nothing to the imagination.
The appeal of the Jamaican all-inclusives was becoming clear to me.
Then a different man, who told us his name was David, yelled out to us, saying that these were "bad people." He was older, in his mid-40s, and offered to find a place where we could shop. My wife's luggage hadn't made it to Jamaica yet, and the clothes on her back were all she had. Warily, we took him up on his offer.
Walking down a major street is quite unique in Mobay. Lets start with the sidewalks, that is, when there is a sidewalk. On Gloucester Avenue, within one block a fairly wide sidewalk can quickly narrow into a single-file thoroughfare--and then the sidewalk will merge into the street, in other words--there is then no sidewalk. During that transition, the sidewalk is often pocked with potholes.
There are no shortage of taxis in Montegeo Bay. And walkers are reminded of that, every empty cab will slow down, or stop, offering tourist a ride. Usually by honking. It's quaint at first, but the noise...noise...noise...makes a pleasant walk, well, unpleasant.
Taxis in Jamaica have maroon license plates. However, illegal cab drivers, driving with regular-issue white plates, also would honk at us, hoping we'd hop in their jitney vehicles.
Then there are the unsolicited offers to sell ganja: "Hey, mon, want to buy some ganja?" Luckily, my daughter is too young to know what that means. To be fair to those drug sellers, according to the Frommers' Jamaica book I read, the open availability of marijuana--possession of which is illegal on the island, is one of the chief draws of tourists to Jamaica.
However, I don't drink, nor do I imbibe in pot-smoking, but I was there anyway.
My wife got a dress at the craft market pictured on the left. Haggling is part of the Mobay experience. We were told the dress cost _45. The Frommers book pointed out that everything in the craft market was overpriced--only morons don't haggle. We got the dress for _15, which is the same price we saw the dress on sales at the brick-and-mortar stores on the Hip Strip.
Oh, haggling is part of the buying experience at the "regular" stores, too.
I'm a life-long Midwesterner, and in this part of the country, haggling, outside of car dealerships and flea markets, is something I almost never have to deal with.
At the craft market, there was a fair share of junk being offered, but also, many artists were selling their own paintings, wood carvings, and jewelry.
Jamaicans are very creative, perhaps the most creative people on the planet.
There was a new annoyance we encountered at the craft market. Offers to braid my daughter's hair. Big tip for you future travelers to Jamaica. Get your girls' hair-braided immediately. This will drastically cut down on Mobay hustle solicitations. We waited five days before our daughter got her hair braided, before then, we had to contend with constant "Can we braid the cute girl's hair" offers.
David took us to the City Centre area of Montego Bay, a very congested place, as you can see. The whiff of ganja was strong.
Unfortunately, Montego Bay--and as we discovered later--other parts of Jamaica are messy places. Littering is a serious problem.
In Montego Bay, and beyond, almost every store or craft market hut has at least one Bob Marley portrait. He's venerated in Jamaica. I like his music too, which I mentioned to several locals. I found out, however, that mentioning the number of illegitimate children Marley fathered--anywhere from six to ten by most accounts--quickly earned me dirty looks and comments such as "dat is just a room-ahr."
David our guide did a good job showing us around Montegeo Bay, we paid him _15 for his hour with us. He asked for _50.
It's the Mobay way.
Most of the time in Jamaica, I was with my wife and daughter. A few times I walked around on my own, or I went running. (After all, I am the Marathon Pundit.)
The first night in Montego Bay, I ventured out to buy a shaving razor. While searching for a store, a man who said his name was "One-two" asked me what I looking for--he didn't know where to find a razor, but he told me he'd drive me to a club called "The Upper Deck," where I can find the finest Jamaican women.
I told him my wife wouldn't approve.
The next night, in front of the Wexford, a woman named Corrina asked me where I was staying. I told her, and she suggested that I take her with me. I pointed out my wife to her, she said that it was okay, and she offered to perform a sexual act on her. Luckily, my daughter was out of earshot.
Jamaica, yo problem!
I went running a few times on the island, a unique experience. Several cabs stopped to offer me a ride. Why would they want a sweaty, shirtless man in their cab? Besides, runners rarely carry cash. I got a few offers to purchase ganja--I don't believe the sellers were acting in jest. At a street crossing on my last day there, I had to stop to let some cars go past. A woman came up to me, she wanted to know where I was staying...I told her, and she asked if I could take her back to my hotel.
Back in Illinois, the biggest excitement I get while running is having to out-run a stray dog.
So yes, Jamaica has problems.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the goals of my vacation blogging is to turn the world of travel writing upside down--in short, to do to political writing what blogs have done.
Look for part two of Jamaica, yo problem. It gets scarier, as I sit down on the right side of the front seat and drive a car. The sidewalks are bad in Jamaica. Visit Marathon Pundit next week and find out what condition the roads are in.
Part two - Jamaica by car.
When we decided to travel to Jamaica for a vacation, my family and I decided not to stay in one of the increasingly popular "all-inclusive" resorts, instead we selected the Wexford Court Hotel in the middle of Montego's Bay "Hip Strip."
In that spirit of immersing ourselves in Jamaica, as opposed to walling ourselves in an all-inclusive property, we decided to rent a car and travel outside of Montego Bay, or "Mobay," as the locals sometimes refer to it.
One of my goals of this series, as I stated in my earlier Jamaica post, is to ignite travel blogging--in short do to that travel journalism what poli-blogging has done to mainstream political writing. Travel writing, such as what is found in most daily newspapers, is a sycophantic exercise designed to benefit the hospitality industry.
The car we rented a Toyota Yaris sedan. As with most former British colonies, drivers use the left side of the road, not the right.
I was a bit tense about having to change my driving pattern--I've been driving on the right side of the road, uninterrupted, for 17 years. It'd soon become clear that'd be the least of my worries regarding my two days on the roads of Jamaica.
Negril was our destination for our first day. I drove for about a half mile before I had a close call behind the wheel, as I drove over a massive pothole at full speed. Luckily, no damage was done to the car. In part one of Jamaica, Yo Problem, I wrote about the deplorable conditions of the sidewalks in Montego Bay. The roads in Jamaica are equally awful, they're narrow and filled with potholes.
I asked Morris, a cab driver who drove us to the Half Moon resort on our first full day in Jamaica, about the bad roads. "Why aren't the potholes fixed?" He told me, "The crews are too busy building the North Coast Highway to Ocho Rios." I'm getting a head of myself, because that's where we're headed on the second day of our Jamaican road trip.
Once we got out of Montego Bay, the roads widened and I was almost comfortable driving. Still, I had to be constantly on the look-out for potholes.
The roadsides are pleasantly populated by stands , where I purchased some mangoes.
Towns were a problem. The roads contract inside villages, the streets in these towns haven't had been widened, in all likelihood, since the horse-and-buggy days. In Lucea, halfway to Negril, on a very tight portion of a street, I sideswiped a high curb that seemingly came out of nowhere. Luckily, the plastic bumper that met the concrete was already scratched on my rental car. A previous driver of the car probably did the same thing I did.
I elected to get full insurance coverage on the Toyota. It cost an extra _50. Just for the peace-of-mind it gave me it was worth it.
Yes, the roads are bad, but the drivers aren't much better. My wife asked me why I was using my lane change signal-- because no one else was. Jamaican drivers like to nudge toward the center of the road, expecting the oncoming vehicle to back off---which is how I ended up hitting the curb in Lucea. As I gained more experience driving in Jamaica, I learned to do the same thing--hold the center of the road--while looking out for potholes.
Negril is unique in Jamaica. From our guidebook, Frommers' Jamaica:
On the arid tip of Jamaica, Negril has had a reputation for bacchinalia, hedonism, marijuana smoking, and nude sunbathing, since hippies discovered its sunny shores in the 1960s. The resort became more mainstream during the 1990s as big-money capitalists built megaresorts, most of them managed by SuperClubs or Sandals. Yet some resorts still reserve stretches of beach for nude bathers, and illegal ganja is still peddled openly.
Our nine year-old daughter was with us, so we planned to stay away from the nudity and pot smoking. Besides, I'd been warned by locals that the nudists who bare it all at the resorts follow the predictable pattern of public nakedness: The ones who take off their clothes shouldn't, the ones that should, don't.
Negril has two places listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. One of them is the Rock House, where I had lunch.
More on the Rock House, from Go2Jamaica.com:
Rock House is a hip boutique hotel stretching across the cliffs of Pristine Cove in Negril. Twenty-eight air conditioned rooms have thatched roofs with private sun bathing decks and are nestled in tropical lush gardens. The resort boasts a 60 foot cliff top horizon pool, a laid back atmosphere, and a restaurant serving "new Jamaican cuisine" on a balcony suspended directly over the water. Ladders and stairs carved into the rock lead down to easy water access for swimming and snorkeling on the reef.
Pretty nice place, and pretty expensive too. Lunch was pretty good and reasonably priced, but I'm not sure how this place ended up as one of the 1,000 places to see before you die.
Next stop was Rick's Cafe...and there is no doubt in my mind that this place belongs in that list. Rick's is built on stone cliffs, cocktail sippers and gulpers are entertained by seemingly Olympic-caliber divers who dive for tips off the 60 foot high cliffs, or from a thirty-foot tree above those cliffs.
My daughter and I dove off a shorter cliff, about 25 feet high, a few times, the water temperature was perfect. Viewing the sunset from Rick's balcony is an eagerly anticipated daily event at Rick's, we were told. But the horizon clouded up late in the day, so we missed out on that ceremony.
We walked around Negril a little bit. A typical house, not just to Negril but to most of Jamaica, is pictured here. The people of Negril are not nearly as aggressive in their selling of junk as their counterparts in Montego Bay, and despite the claims in the Frommers' book, no one offered to sell us ganja. Only one prostitute propositioned me in Negril.
After the cloud-covered sunset, it began to rain quite hard. My plan was to drive back to the Wexford that night, then head to Ocho Rios the first thing in the morning. Driving in pouring rain, on the left side of the road, on the worst roads I'd ever driven on seemed to be a foolish idea. A patron at Rick's told us there was a small hotel that had an available guest house. We drove there and stayed there for the night.
The following morning, we drove back to Montego Bay. Since I was familiar with the especially bad patches of road, and the segments of narrow stretches, the trip back was a little less torturous than the way to Negril.
Next, Jamaica, Yo Problem heads to Ocho Rios on the North Coast Highway, a road that is a work-in-progress. William Least Heat-Moon in his indispensable roadtrip book, Blue Highways. A Journey into America, utilized Dante's phrase, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here," whenever he encountered road construction.
William wasn't driving in Jamaica, however, in Blue Highways.
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