Jamaica no problem

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Central America Caribbean » Jamaica
January 7th 2013
Published: January 14th 2013
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Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1992, I went to Europe on a summer work program in Finland. Two brothers - who were friends of mine, but I didn't know that well - named Gleb and Yan, were also in Europe doing the Eurail thing that summer. We decided to meet in Italy and spent the next few weeks traveling together, having some interesting adventures and - more importantly - solidifying our friendship. We remain close friends to this day. So we talked about doing a 20 year reunion trip, just the three of us. With jobs, businesses, wives, and girlfriends, it wasn't easy to coordinate. But we finally were able to find a time that worked for everyone, the last week of December 2012. After eliminating many places due to time, cost, or the fact that we had already been there (and we have all traveled extensively, so we eliminated a lot of places!), we settled on Jamaica. I was in Jamaica for 11 days, and will report on my experiences here.

After we bought our tickets, and started researching about Jamaica (yes, we bought first and researched later!), we started getting a little nervous. There were numerous reports and warnings about the level of crime. Lonely Planet said you might get shot for your iPhone! (I brought mine anyway). A few friends who had been warned us about the crime levels; one was even threatened with a machete! We read warnings and horror stories, and were getting apprehensive. Was the only way to travel in Jamaica to stay in an all inclusive resort, with fences and gates and security guards? Never to interact with the locals or walk the streets? That is how many people travel to Jamaica, including one friend of ours, but it wasn't the kind of trip the three of us were looking for. We wanted action and adventure and not a package holiday. Excited, but also a little apprehensive, we headed to Jamaica.

Our first two days were indeed at an all inclusive resort, a few miles from the airport in Montego Bay where we landed. The weather was gorgeous - in fact, it was warm (about 30 celsius or 86 Farenheit average) and sunny (in 11 days, it only rained once, briefly) throughout our trip. But the food was mediocre and the particular beach at this resort wasn't the best. Still, it wasn't a bad way to start off the trip, lounging by the pool, and drinking and eating anything we wanted without having to worry about the bill; "all inclusive" means you pay in advance and then get unlimited food, drinks, and usually entertainment. And there was some entertainment in the evenings, singing and dancing. But being explorers, we wanted to see what the country was like outside the walls of our "compound". We headed to town - Montego Bay - one of the larger cities in Jamaica. Just outside of Margaritaville, a popular chain of clubs/restaurants owned by Jimmy Buffett, the "real Jamaica" started. On Friday night, there were hundreds of people walking the streets, jerk chicken stalls, sidewalk vendors of all kinds. The streets were literally packed with people, mostly young, and all Jamaican. Despite being just a few miles from the international airport, cruise ships, and dozens of resorts and hotels with thousands of tourists, we walked around for 2 hours and didn't see one other foreigner. Based on this, and other observations, it would seem that even in that first evening's walk, we experienced more of "real Jamaica" than most tourists. We never felt in danger; a few people tried to sell us things. We ate some street food and walked around, feeling very much out of place but proud of the fact we were exploring more than most other tourists. Outside the hotels and resorts, Jamaica is definitely a poor country. Not Africa poor (though given that almost everyone is of African descent, at times it was reminiscent), but more in line with most countries I had been to in Mexico or Latin America. Definitely a lot of people just standing or sitting around doing nothing; a lot of street markets and food vendors selling from sidewalk grills.

After a couple days in Montego Bay, we were ready to explore some more, and went to the town of Ocho Rios, where there are many outdoor activities. Like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios gets its fair share of tourists. It's a cruise ship dock, it's not far from Montego Bay (where most international flights to Jamaica land) and it has many activities, the most famous of these being Dunn's River waterfall. Our taxi driver, Mike, was very friendly, and gave us the history of the island, the Rastafarian religion and lifestyle, Bob Marley, and more. I should point out that before coming, we were also warned not to rent a car or attempt to drive on our own. This advice we should have maybe ignored. The roads and driving weren't so bad, at least on the main road connecting all the places we went to. And we could have saved a lot of money had we done this. Taxis were expensive. We probably spent more than $1000 on them, mostly between cities (local rides were fairly cheap, usually about $5).

Our first evening in Ocho Rios, we went out to a club that was having a karaoke night. As soon as we arrived there, I heard them announcing "and we need one more person for our Adele contest". I raised my hand and immediately went up on stage. There were three other contestants, all local, and they asked each of us to sing a couple lines from an Adele song. We went through three rounds. Now, I am not a great singer, nor the biggest Adele fan. In fact, I only know three of her songs. But that was enough to win the contest, as apparently none of the other contestants knew any of the words to any Adele song! I got a gift basket filled with beers and snacks. It was definitely a memorable moment. We did a lot of activities in the Ocho Rios area during the few days we stayed there: taking a (slow) raft down the Martha Brae river, night swimming in bioluminescent water, and - most exciting of all - climbing up the Dunn's River Waterfall. Although it looked very slippery, we managed to climb up from the beach to the top of the falls. Dunn's is a wide waterfall with multiple levels, and each level forms a natural swimming pool. We would climb from one level to the next, swim in the "pool", and keep climbing. We managed not to fall and get hurt. It was a lot of fun, and very unique.

The beach in Ocho Rios was nice, but not amazing. We went scuba diving, and that was quite disappointing. After a lot of time spent finding the place and haggling, money (close to $100 per person), and preparation, we finally got in the water and dived, only to see... nothing. Seriously, I don't think we saw more than 2 or 3 small fish, and one or two other small sea creatures. When we came up, our diving instructor told us the waters there are overfished as there is no protection. Whatever the reason, it sucked.

In the evenings in Ocho Rios, we walked around downtown, and it was a similar scene to the one in Montego Bay. Once again, there were virtually no tourists on the main streets, although there were thousands in hotels and resorts nearby (like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios is also a cruise ship terminal). But we never felt unsafe. Having said that, we were three men walking together. I was certainly more nervous the couple times I walked alone; strangers calling out to you is not uncommon. And to say that people trying to sell you drugs or sex is common would be a gross understatement.

When we got to Negril, in the Western part of the island, the beaches we had heard about really were amazing. Miles of white sand and clear water - perfect for swimming, laying out in the sun, snorkeling, or any kind of beach activity. We got a hotel on the beach, and set out to enjoy the sun, sand, and sea. The snorkeling in Negril was actually much better than the scuba diving in Ocho Rios. Well, it could hardly have gotten worse, since we saw nothing in Ocho Rios. In Negril, we saw a lot of colorful little fish, and a couple sting rays. Still, it was much less than I have seen in other parts of the world like the Red Sea, Tahiti, Thailand, etc. We walked for miles along the beach until we arrived at a nudist colony, called Hedonism, and were kicked out when we went to the bar to get drinks. We didn't realize it was "all inclusive" and for resort guests only. We went to the famous Rick's Cafe, and dived off the cliffs, along with hundreds of other tourists. By the way, just as on the streets you see virtually no tourists, in places like Rick's you see virtually no Jamaicans, except the ones working there. It's definitely very segregated between tourists and locals in Jamaica. Rick's Cafe is a very popular place in Negril, where everyone arrives around 4 PM, dives off the cliffs, eats and drinks, and most leave right after the spectacular sunset. We lounged for hours on Negril's beach in reclining chairs. We swam. We soaked up the sun. We ate, drank, and had a good time. We went to some nightclubs, made two new Belgian friends, and were introduced to the concept of an "all white party". No, it's nothing like it sounds. Jamaicans like to throw parties where everyone dresses in all white - white shoes, white socks, white pants, white shirt. We saw a few of these.

New Year's Eve was interesting. There were ads and flyers for days before about the parties, but 10 PM, then 11 PM rolled around, and we walked along the beach, and most places were deserted. Same with the clubs. We asked where the party was, and were told to go to a place called Beach Park. We got there, and there were at least a thousand people there, mostly locals, a stage and a DJ playing reggae music. But it was a big park, and there was still a lot of empty space, and no one was really singing, dancing, or celebrating. It didn't feel much like a party at all. As I later told my friends, I've been to funerals that were more fun. The DJ was speaking "patois", the Jamaican version of "pidgin" English which as a foreigner, you can maybe understand 10% to 20% of (for example, "waagwan" means "what's going on?", "me der go" is "I'm going there"; it gets even harder, especially when they're talking fast). The music was pretty subdued. We glanced at our watch, and it was a couple minutes past midnight. 2012 had departed and 2013 had arrived with no countdown, no announcement, no hugging, no screaming, no kissing, no celebration. Nothing. It was very disappointng. That's when I got an idea. I went up to the stage, gave the DJ about $10, and said I'd like to make an announcement. He handed me the mike, and I lead the crowd in a countdown: "10,9,8...3,2,1. Happy New Year, Jamaica!". It just wouldn't have felt like a New Year's Eve without a countdown.

Jamaica is famous for the Rastafarian religion, "Rasta" for short. Rastas worship the deceased Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as their spiritual leader, usually grow long hair in dreadlocks, smoke a lot of "ganja" (marijuana) and preach "one love", that we are all the same. They are generally very peaceful and laid back people. Many people we met were either Rastas or seemed to appreciate a lot of the Rasta elements. But we were also told that Rastas are often discriminated against by the authorities and those with money and power.

I should also mention the jerk. Jamaica might be the only country where a "jerk center" is not a place full of a**holes, but rather a restaurant that specializes in spicy chicken and pork (and sometimes fish) prepared what they call "jerk" style. This is the national dish and is served everywhere, from the fancy restaurants to the sidewalk vendors.

And one can't mention Jamaica without talking about Bob Marley, the reggae musician who made the country more famous worldwide than probably anyone else. The son of a white father and black Jamaican mother, he preached "one love" and the Rasta lifestyle, and helped stop some of the fighting that was taking place between different factions at the time. Sadly, he died from cancer at the young age of 36 in 1981. His music is well known all over the world, and he popularized reggae and the Rasta movement and lifestyle, which reached all corners of the world.

Jamaica has its own currency - the Jamaican dollar, which is about 85 to one US $. But you never really need it. American dollars are widely accepted everywhere, though sometimes it's a bit cheaper to pay in Jamaican dollars. But you even get quoted in American dollars for anything that costs more than a few dollars, and even the ATMs usually give you a choice of withdrawing your money in American or Jamaican.

Although we never felt in danger of violence at any point, we did get hassled quite a bit, especially while being at Negril Beach. Offers were most common for - in order: "ganja" (marijuana), cocaine, sex, and taxis. Two of us were physically grabbed by aggressive prostitutes near the beach area of Negril. A female friend was asked several times if she wanted to "try Jamaican". It's also noteworthy that we were three men, usually walking together. Our experience might well have been scarier if we were one man alone, let alone one woman. Jamaicans are very friendly, but you do get hassled a lot. They are also very raunchy and a favorite topic of conversation is sex. Several men bragged about their multiple lovers. On the other hand, there is no tolerance for homosexuality, and gays are beaten up and imprisoned. I mention these things because if you're not prepared for this, it might be better to go elsewhere or do one of the "all inclusive" resorts and only do one or two venturings out. It's not for everyone.

Jamaica is without a doubt a beautiful country. It is green and lush, with many waterfalls and rivers, and of course, stunning beaches. Outside of one's hotels and resorts, it is also a poor country with many unemployed young people and few opportunities. It is also a country with many contradictions: The preaching of "one love" yet a lot of violence (Jamaica has one of the world's top 5 highest murder rates). A country that is poor but expensive. Laid back attitude yet very aggressive hustlers. An island famous for its beaches, where we found out many people can't swim. Fancy resorts, many charging $500+ a night, next to slums. Jamaica is not a budget destination, and there is more of a segregation between tourists and locals than I felt in other places where I have traveled. Its close proximity to the US - 3 hours or less by plane from the East Coast, and lots of cruises from Florida - also means a lot of American tourists, not necessarily of the adventurous world traveler type. Nevertheless, it was a fun getaway to a warm and beautiful country.

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