We flew out of Miami directly over Communist Cuba, playground of that fashion-plate, Fidel “Fatigues are always in style” Castro. Evidently there’s a strip of air space that commercial airlines are allowed to fly through without being shot out of the sky by overzealous anti-aircraft gunners.
It was pretty hairy for about 30 minutes as we contemplated the risk of being shot down over a country that doesn’t operate a single McDonald’s restaurant. We finally landed in Montego Bay–the commercial, “touristy” part of Jamaica (i.e. it has indoor plumbing). Its beaches are lined with your cheesier swinging resorts like Sandal’s and Breeze’s where young people flock to get drunk and score with the resort staff. Once on the ground, we spent twenty minutes waiting at Customs to present immigration cards and exchange money. This was a huge mistake. If you go to Jamaica, keep the good, old US currency. The exchange rate isn’t as bad as it is in Mexico (where it’s approximately 1,000,000 Mexican pesos to one US dime), but the natives still don’t want their own money. One guy told me a Snapple® cost US$2.50, and when I asked how much that was in Jamaican, he just looked away until I dug out some US greenbacks. He would’ve been happier if I’d offered him Monopoly® money.
We spent our first two hours on this Caribbean paradise crammed into a tour bus that had to have had its shocks all but removed (judging from five minutes on roads that made the New York Department of Transportation look on ball).
Jamaica is very poor. Well, to be more accurate, the people are (I make this assumption based on the fact that rarely do you see goats wandering the streets of Beverly Hills). A surprising number of businesses consisted of roadside lean-to’s, spaced evenly down the country’s “roads”. (Despite the fact that Jamaicans speak English, some words–like “Building Codes”–have apparently not made the trip over, or are still in Customs trying to explain that gun in their bag.) These independent retailers might do better if they broke down their little boxes and moved down the road to the next stand and combined their efforts in sort of a SuperStore concept (not that Sam’s Warehouse would have anything to worry about). Actually, our tour bus made a rest stop at a place that apparently tried just that. Lean-to owners butted their shops up against about thirty others, forming a crude mall. (The effect wasn’t complete, however, without 16-year old girls on cell phones.) Unfortunately, a real mall offers some things that their mall didn’t. Besides air-conditioning, ample parking and sanitary conditions, a real mall offers variety. They all sell the same stuff. Even ARTWORK. It’s like the country only has three original artists and everybody else repaint the images over and over. So if you happen to like the image, you can PRICE shop. Only in Jamaica could you hear someone dickering over the price of a painting (“$100 bucks?!! No way!! I saw that same Picasso down the road for $65!!”)
Another delightful surprise–for me anyway–was seeing an entire island almost entirely occupied by Japanese cars. As a former British colony, the Jamaicans drive on the left–effectively crossing Detroit’s finest off the average Jamaican family’s car shopping list. Even the tour bus was a Toyota. I also got to see models of cars that you can’t get in the States (and after seeing them, I didn’t wonder why).
Our resort, The Jamaica Grande, is the biggest on the island. Fortunately, it was summer, so it wasn’t overcrowded. The lobby was composed mainly of fake rock formations creating faux waterfalls spilling into unnaturally shaped pools with rope bridges over them in a safari kind of motif. The overall effect was slightly plastic, but compared to the entirely natural accommodations most Jamaicans have, we counted ourselves lucky. With its high ceilings, smooth marble floors and a total lack of walls–the lobby also offered a spectacular view of Ocho Rios bay and the huge cruise ship that occupied most of it. Below the lobby, there was a main pool area with two Jacuzzi spas, two smaller pools and an open-air court area with a running buffet. If that was closed, we could choose from a pizza/Italian eatery, a café, a steak & fish place or a Chinese restaurant. The food was not as good as some of South Beach’s finer restaurants, but it was still surprisingly good. To entertain guests–and by entertain, I mean take their money–there was a casino, a disco, jet skis and para-sailing. (While we paid for the all-inclusive package, every muscle that was contracted or extended for our benefit was followed closely by an open palm awaiting grease.)
Ocho Rios–which means “eight rivers”– begins conveniently at the end of the resort’s driveway. On our second day there, we ventured into “downtown” and almost walked past it. Fortunately, we were immediately set upon by locals wanting to braid “the pretty lady’s” hair. (Lady? Boy, were they off.) They didn’t bother to ask me for apparently obvious reasons. On what passed for main street, we were also offered “smoke” and hash (apparently the local Jamaicans are big fans of corned beef and potatoes). The city of Ocho Rios runs along parallel to the water, but higher up in the hills. Happily, the beach area pretty much belonged to the resort. At the south end of the city, there is an old Bauxite mine. Actually the mine is 7 miles up in the mountains and the longest conveyor belt in the world brings Bauxite down to the shore where it is exported all over the world for the manufacture of Aluminum. Strangely, the bauxite mine is also where the cruise ships docked. So we were glad we flew.
The weather in Jamaica–even in the dead of summer–was ideal. So just out of curiosity, I checked to see if there were any ad agencies on this Bali High. In fact, there were twelve. Unfortunately, the only account I would want to work on (mmm, Red Stripe beer) is handled by an agency in the States.
One of the big tourist destinations in Jamaica is Dunns River Falls. And the thing that makes this waterfall different from those you see in National Geographic specials is the sheer number of tourists this one can accommodate. Busloads of chalky-white tourists from Nebraska coughed up US$30 to venture up the Falls. Starting this trek at the bottom, each person holds the hand of someone else from their group (boy, girl, boy style) to form an embarrassing-long human chain, whose purpose seems only to guarantee that, 1.) you will be pulled into the water by the idiot you are holding on to and, 2.) you are clearly identified for the nearby vendors as a tourist. The rocks over which the spring water flows is some kind of limestone or something. While it would appear that walking up rocks against a raging current would be just asking for hospitalization, it was surprisingly easy. The rocks are still rough and coarse despite centuries of erosion. At the top of the falls, we climbed out of the water and headed towards what we thought to be the exit. But it was just a trick by the Jamaicans to make us wade through another veritable gauntlet of vendors….hawking the same crappy art, t-shirts and wood crafts as every other vendor on the island.
After a few tour experiences, we decided to just stay at the resort and bulk up for winter. All-in-all, we had a really nice time. The people are very nice and spoke better English than we did. Next time though, I think we’ll try one of the arid islands like Barbados, or Aruba.