I usually hope for a window seat on an airplane, but it was absolutely necessary when I flew to Jamaica on Aug. 13th. I wanted to see the moment when I left the North American continent for the first time. I was not disappointed. The clouds were spectacular, the ocean was way down there, I saw Cuba when we roared over it, and Jamaica from the air was a fluffy emerald wonder.
Customs and immigration navigated, I came bursting out of the airport into Jamaica’s hug of sun and humidity, and was soon comfortably installed in one of Clive’s airport transfer vans – on the wrong side of the vehicle! Left-hand drive is just one of many relics of British colonization. Once I had gotten over my surprise I rather enjoyed the phenomenon. The Red Stripe that I clutched for most of the ride from Montego Bay to Negril also helped. (Michael, my driver: “What would you like to drink during the ride – water? Beer?” Me: “…Beer? Yes, beer, thanks!” Me, thinking: Oh ho, I ain’t in the States anymore…!)
I clutched that beer because driving in Jamaica is pretty exciting. The main roads are in decent shape, but smaller roads have potholes that rival New England’s after a bad winter. I say smaller, but all the roads are small, and there’s a a whole lot of activity on them. Cars, bikes, people walking, goats crossing… Jamaican drivers are honk happy – and good thing! They drive fast and break hard, zip around corners, pass joyfully whenever they please, and honk the whole time. They honk to say hello, to warn that they’re passing, to make the goats pick up the pace, and to alert pedestrians to tuck in elbows and watch their toes. I walked a lot while I was in their country, and I grew to love the cheery “Peep peep” of their horns (which sound nothing like the deeply angry “HOOONK” of American car horns). I could have hip checked most of the cars that passed me but I actually never felt like I was going to get hit. (On the other hand, I was nearly smashed in a crosswalk by a thoughtless Pittsburgher on my first day back…!)
Michael dropped me off at the gates of Judy House, on West Land Mountain Road, Negril, after spending the hour drive chatting about his country and his plans to go travel in the States soon, (and about how he’d stubbornly stayed in his little wooden house during the last bad hurricane and been fine!) I found my way through the lovely maze of Sue’s garden (the owner is Sue, I don’t know where ‘Judy’ comes from) to the back of the property where a backpacker hostel comfortably hosts the more adventurous tourist. Sunny decks, sheltered hammocks, outdoor baths, and cute cabins built from corrugated tin, painted lilac, are scattered throughout the garden. The place is guarded by Brownie, a sleepy, content Golden Retriever, who never bothers to run off the number of small semi-wild cats that flit about and come begging for nibbles or tickles. The garden – and indeed the whole island – is full of plants that came straight from the Tropical Fruits & Spices room at Phipps Conservatory, not to mention heaps of glorious flowers, including bougainvillea bushes as big as horses.
I flung my things on my bed in the dorm, then caught a ride from Sue back into downtown Negril. There a friendly Australian girl (a co-hosteler) and I exchanged money and marveled at grocery items in the Hi-Lo Supermarket. The food-stuffs there had a definite British influence, with dozens of imported crackers and cookies. There was also had a well-stocked cooler of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. We were invited by everyone we saw to “Come into my shop”, “Take a ride in my taxi”, “Exchange money with me, my rate is better”, and we wandered among them and around the Sunshine Plaza while it suddenly poured. Vigorous thunder and lightning accompanied the storm, so we scuttled into a tiny Jerk Shack to wait it out and eat some dinner.
I had Jerk pork, which I ate in wonderment – finger lickin’, bone suckin’ good. Across the road lightning sizzled and sparked into the ocean, multiple strikes searing the horizon at once. I checked the time – 4:30 p.m. – and fervently hoped that the beach-side wedding I was scheduled to appear in at around the same time on the coming Saturday wouldn’t be graced with a similar storm…
My new Australian friend walked back to the hostel when the rain let up, and I set off to find my American friends at their resort on the beach. Skirting around puddles and trying not to get run over by route taxis, I made my way through the small center of Negril and started across the bridge that spans the Negril River. A tall, somewhat tattered Jamacian man with long dreads bundled up on his head said “Hello lady,” to me as I passed him. When I responded with just a smile he said with some insistence, “Hello, stop please, one moment, can I speak to you?”
I stopped and turned to him, and he grinned hugely. “I’m Paul,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Welcome. What is your name?”
“I’m Sally,” I replied and I shook his hand.
“Sally,” he said. “Sally. I look at you, I see you walking, and I wonder what is her mission?”
“I’m going to meet my friends,” I said quickly.
“You’re here with friends? You’re here on vacation?”
I said “Yes,” and he looked at me rather pointedly. “You walk very quickly,” he said.
“Ah. I’m walking too fast maybe?”
“Yes! Relax. You’re here to experience life!”
“All right,” I said, “I’ll walk more slowly. I was forgetting!”
We stood on the bridge while cars and bikes and people rattled and romped by and chatted for awhile longer. The man guessed that I was a Virgo, like himself, laughed a bit, got me to confirm that he might be a little bit psychic, was pleased with himself, and let me go finally after I promised to continue on my way at a slower pace.
He didn’t ask for my number, or wonder where I was staying, or claim that our energy vibed well together, and didn’t ask to get to know me better, or beg me to show up at some bar or beach-side concert later that night, didn’t comment on my outfit or call me pretty – all things that other Jamaican men said to me, rapid-fire, as I made my way up the beach that day, and here and there in Negril for the remainder of my stay. I learned to dance away from such encounters with relative grace (most gave up after I mentioned my boyfriend) and wasn’t too bothered by them. I wish that I could have had a real conversation with these guys, but like the men selling sun hats and friendship bracelets and ganja at the edge of the ocean, they seemed to me to be trying to sell something as well.
The famous so called 7-Mile Beach (really it’s about 4 miles long) is a curve of white sand tickled by deliciously warm ocean, bordered along it’s length by resorts and restaurants. I found my friends – soon to be bride and groom – enjoying their first pina coladas of the trip not far from the resort where they were staying. We trooped further up the beach, running in and out of the water, until the sun set in a stupendous blaze of color. There’s nothing quite like a sunset over the ocean, especially when you’re facing west.
I spent the evening with my friends exploring the beach and went back to the hostel late, where I curled up under my mosquito net and slept soundly. Roosters crowing woke me early and by 7:30 a.m. I was outside scribbling in my journal, listening to distant reggae and nearby goat sounds, and wondering what my first full day in Jamaica would hold.
As it turned out, it contained a long walk down West End Road to the westernmost point of Jamaica, a visit to the lighthouse there, a delicious late breakfast of saltfish and ackee at Just Natural, a boat ride while my friends parasailed, many beach-wanders, dinner at Juicy’s, and a ride in a route taxi home to my hostel bed.
Cliffs line the coast to the south of Negril
Negril Lighthouse, built in 1894. One of the earliest concrete lighthouses, it’s built on top of a tank of water 14 feet deep which helps to keep it stable and balanced if there’s an earthquake. The lighthouse keeper told me that it’s come through many hurricanes without flinching, even when the ocean has flooded right up to it’s base. He also wished he had known I was coming – he’d have made me breakfast…!
“Jamaican breakfast”, which most places means saltfish and ackee (a savory fruit that looks like scrambled eggs above), dumplings (served fried here, with a banana jam), and other fruit. I ate in the shady garden at Just Natural and enjoyed fresh papaya juice too. Those round green things are guineps, a very odd fruit with sweet gooey-ness wrapped around a big pit. You pop them out of their skins and then just kind of suck on them.
My friends putting their heads in the clouds
I’m so pleased that I stayed at the hostel, in what is known as West End. Even in the off-season, the hustle and bustle of the beach with it’s relentless drive to delight and entertain tourists, was a bit much for me. I loved going back to my little hostel bed, and waking up to the sound of chickens being fed and workmen building a house down the road.
On Friday I tromped the 10 minutes down West Land Mountain Road and around the corner to CJ’s, a tiny shack restaurant with a roadside porch where some fellows playing Dominoes welcomed me and shouted for CJ. He came from the kitchen and washed a table on the back porch for me, then fed me brown stew (chicken in a rich brown sauce) and a boiled dumpling and breadfruit and several other fruits or veggies that had a potato-like consistency.
I sat watching the ocean for a bit, then a fellow caught sight of me and asked if he could join me. I said yes, and he sat down and explained what I was eating, then told me that CJ was his cousin, and that his father came from further up West Land Mountain Road. His mother owned a little restaurant down the road, and he worked there. He boasted about his Domino skills and sent his good wishes on to my friends for their wedding and marriage. He was lovely and interesting, and I was pleased to have met him.
I spent the rest of the day with my friends and the growing group of wedding guests. I met another nice Jamaican man who decided I was altogether too sun burnt, and slathered me with aloe straight out of the plant. It was wonderfully refreshing, and did take the pink out of my skin somewhat. I bought a bunch of aloe from him, anticipating more burning… Later in the day we caravaned to Rick’s Cafe, which was kind of terrible (terribly white) but there’s no doubt that the Jamaican divers who flung themselves into the sea were a spectacle to behold…!
I stayed with the bride that night, and we spent the next morning dodging the groom and finally swimming in the ocean. I can swim quite well in warm salty water, it turns out…! The wedding went off with a few hitches (the rain I’d dreaded came right when it was supposed to start…of course!) but it turned out all right and everyone had fun. We thought when a Chinese fire lantern crashed into the sea that there might be some bad luck involved, but were immediately gifted with a visit from a sting ray, so good luck all round!
I stayed that night near the beach at a bungalow some other wedding guests had rented, and spent another morning swimming in the ocean. Our friend the sting ray was still around, and we kept calm and collected and in the water with it for awhile. What a stunning creature…! In the afternoon, after much debate, we chartered a van and driver to take us to Mayfield Falls. The bride picked the excursion and made vague promises about waterfalls and mineral pools, so we expected a bit of hiking and a dip in the river. We got quite a bit more than that…!
Seaburt picked us up and drove us the hour or so into the jungle. The roads got smaller and more rough until we were driving on real “Reggae roads” as Seaburt called them with a grin. “You like dancing?” he said as we bounced around. I rode in the front and got the best views, somewhat hampered by a brief, heavy afternoon rain. We passed through small communities and and a sugar plantation, and then started to go up into the mountains. I thought West Virginia had narrow, twisty-turny mountainous roads…! Jamaica takes the cake though – and beyond being narrow (one lane!) and curvaceous, they are potholed, lack guardrails, and are the front yard, sidewalk, and hangout space of the folks that live on them. Homes that would make lovers of the Tiny House movement drool (brightly painted, pretty wood details) are scattered across the steep slopes, some with their butts hanging out over empty air, corners balanced on stacks of cinder blocks. Seaburt honked a lot (“Peep peep!”) and drove fast, but he slammed the breaks at an especially good vantage point so I could take a picture. We also stopped at a little store owned by a friend of his, and were given several bunches of guineps to suck on.
We were met at the road by our guide for the falls – a small, barefoot, muscular man named Comfy – and after he greeted everyone with fist-bumps, we traipsed down a flight of stairs and across a bridge to the office and bar of the place. Waivers were signed, water shoes were rented, and then Comfy and the staff started taking away our possessions. Boys had to empty pockets, the bride had to give up her phone, they didn’t think I’d want my big palm-leaf hat. “How wet are we going to get?” I asked. “Soaked. You’ll be soaked,” they said. Comfy promised to put my camera in a water-proof bag and then made us strip down to just swim suits.
Off we trooped. We reached the river, and Comfy told us the water would feel great if we just jumped in right away. And he canon-balled in. I looked at the groom with apprehension. I don’t really swim, and he was taking time during the trip to get over an actual fear of water. He had floated for the first time that very morning. But we both kind of shrugged, and then followed the others in – splash, splash, splash, SPLASH!
We hiked straight up the river, in and out of pools both shallow and deep. Comfy was an excellent guide, telling us precisely where to step safely and where to sit so we could get a water massage under the falls. He took pictures for us, and guided the groom and I around the especially deep spots. I did successfully swim for it at one point, and was proud of myself.
On our way back, walking through the jungle on a little ridge above the river, Comfy showed us ginger and turmeric roots and pointed out cocoa trees and a pineapple bush. He was funny and charming, and has been guiding tourists up the falls for 16 years. We commented on his bare feet, and he said proudly, “I’m a jungle boy. Tough feet!”
I bid farewell to my friends that night for what turned out to be the last time, as I never managed to get ahold of them the following day – my last full one in Jamaica. It was a relief to return to the hostel and the West End. I had fun on the beach for sure, but the hotel bar food wasn’t as good as what I’d eaten in the little shack restaurants, and all those delicious pina coladas put a dent in my wallet…! It was interesting to have these two contrasting experiences of Jamaica though, and while I was an American tourist in both scenarios, I didn’t feel as much like one in the West End.
I spent much of that Monday at the Canoe Bar, a restaurant at the bottom of West Land Mountain Road right on the West End’s only little bit of beach. I swam, ate yummy food, drank Red Stripes, and read Cold Comfort Farm. I walked into Negril to do some shopping and hit up the post office, started packing, and then went back to the Canoe Bar for more swimming and dinner and the sunset.
I rose early enough on my last day to go down to CJ’s for breakfast. This time he made me his version of Jamaican Breakfast, with saltfish and ackee, a boiled dumpling, and all those mystery fruits/veggies. He introduced himself to me officially, and was sorry to hear that I was leaving. “Why?” he asked, and so had a few other Jamaicans. “I don’t know,” I replied. I was just starting to dig in to Jamaica, to find it’s rhythm. Going back to the States seemed like so much foolishness.
But I went, regardless. My driver, another fellow who worked for Clive’s Transportation, was late picking me up. He apologized profusely, but I told him, “Never mind, I’m not in a rush to leave!” All too soon I was back at the airport in Montego Bay though, and the rest of my day was spent in endless lines and on crowded planes where I didn’t get the window seat.
Still, it was nice to see that Pittsburgh skyline when I burst out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel in my boyfriend’s truck at 1:30 in the morning. I’ve been back for almost a week, and I’m managing my wanderlust pretty well. I do want to go EVERYWHERE now, but I’m content to stay here for a few months! I had a fun, wide-eyed experience in Jamaica, but next time I travel abroad I want to do it with more intent. I want to dig into the culture more, talk to more people, get my hands dirty.
In the meantime, I have precisely that to do around here! The adventure is always at hand, the game is always afoot.