Whata G'awaan from Runaway Bay Jamaica? We are wrapping up our third-world Caribbean adventure near Columbus' landing spot on the north shore of Jamaica, where he was chased down the beach by a bunch of (now extinct) Arawak Indians. Down just one pair of goggles, two pairs of sunglasses (one grownup), the usual line up of bumps cuts scrapes and big bites later.. and sore knuckles from the constant Jamaican greeting gesture (the knuckle bump) with possibly the friendliest people we have met since Asia. You cant walk down the beach with at least 2 dozen "yea mon r'spect mon - (insert knuckle bump here -)"
Two weeks ago in Kingston...
We arrived from Miami into Kingston, right up there with Johannesberg S.A. and Mogadishu as places you really just don't want to be.. but leave it to Spirit Airlines to run cheap flights into 3rd world Caribbean cities... so off we go.
'Daddy why is everyone here from Africa?' asked the kids as stepped of the plane at the Kingston airport... I wasn 't really sure what to say to that except get into the issue of new world slavery, a fun conversation while picking up our car.. which, as everything on Island time took several hours along with the ding dong immigration line that took two hours. This is the first time in many years we've had to carry "tourist cards" that are given to the hotels and returned when we check out. Someone still must think Mao or Ho Chi Minh had it right. I don't think they do that to arriving whiteys at the touristy Montego Bay airport, but since we were the only white faces around, they had to go a little socialist paranoid on us.
Kingston is a crazy, colorful, crumbling, disaster of a nutty place.. with not one person around. We didn't see a human on the streets. It was like one of those 'last human on earth' movies. Just a couple of goats. We got lost and were for sure in an area we shouldn't have been in. Apparently there are nice parts to this city, but we didn't see any as we attempted to get out of town, but kept going in circles around a really insane system of round a bouts. If any of you have driven thru a round a bout on the left hand side of the road, steering wheel on the right, you know what I'm talking about. Now add West Africa (think Congo) to the equation, that has no signs pointing to which streets go where radiating out of the round a bout.
Several hours later we found ourselves, at night on our way to Negril on the west coast. Jamaica has huge mountains, and large green rolling plains and farms. Parts even look like Ireland. Horses are everywhere mixed with jungle waterfalls and steep green hills. More lush than Hawaii. Every few miles (very long slow miles) we would pass thru a small village. The roadsides are alive with roadside stand sellers, goats, chickens, pigs, school kids, rastamons, big trucks, bigger trucks, signless roundabouts, blasting music and all kinds of wild sights you can imagine. The kids were very much in 'shock and awe' as they stared out the window at the passing circus. Then came the potholes. The drive was much like playing frogger on speed. I managed to miss most of the giant potholes, but one really got us. More on that later (The next morning)
One of the benefits (realized later, not at the time as you are about to wring a little neck)
Kid in backseat : 'I want water'
Parent driving on the wrongside of the road the size of my hallway thru 3rd world villages: 'We dont have water'
Kid: 'I want water'
Parent 'we dont have any water'
Kids 'but I WANT water'
Parent: 'but we DONT HAVE water'
Kid: 'stop and get some'
Parent: Look out the window. Where do you suggest we get water?
Kid: 7-11. Circle K, Wal Mart.. Target... Safeway... Mcdonalds.
Parent: Look out the window and let me know when you see one of those
Kid: (silent).. passing goats, huts, kids eating a bowl of rice and a coconut.. more huts.
It seems to teach them some good life lessons. As Mick said.. you cant always get want you want. Especially in Savanna-La-Mar in Jamaica at 10pm. (Actually there was a KFC that we passed, but we ingnored it because bathroom breaks are equally annoying. And we didn't want them to get nibbled on in the night by some wayward goat on the side of the road)
We arrived very late, tired and cranky to 'Nirvana on the Beach' Negril. It is truly amazing. 6 cabin 'beach huts' (full kitchen, 2 bedroom.. running water and power) No A/C.. No TV!!!
Everyone: What did the kids do without a TV?
Everyone: What about in the morning, no cartoons?
Me: They woke up every morning at 7, ran out the screen hut door into the jungle/beach area and played, played, played.
The cabins were surrounded by jungle, which was a blazing loud concert every night (I mean loud!) of Frogs, birds, crickets, bugs, falling coconuts and almonds on our roof.. and a band of locals playing a heated game of dominoes on the beach behind our hut every night. With no A/C, the screens all around the cabin and fans made it actually chilly at night. Its about 87 during the day here plus an ocean breeze. Phoenix 110. No ocean breeze.
Negril is a long (7 mile beach) postcard pure white sand, blue water beach lined with 50 or so small 8-18 room 'hotels', guest houses, huts, and cabins. Most had been original homes on the beach that turned into 'hotels.' Dotted in between are tiny sand floor restaurants and beach bars strung with hammocks and all playing Bob Marley, Bob Marley, Bob Marley, and sometimes some Bob Marley. The same 8 songs over and over.
All About Bob:
We thought it was a cater to tourist thing, but they play Bob all day and night in the hills and villages too. The history of Bob is odd and complex. He actually was from one of the better off families in the village of Nine Mile not far from here, and grew up playing cheesy love songs
The next morning I went out to the car and found the front passenger side pothole seeker-outer with a horribly mashed up rim, missing hubcab and nearly flat tire. After sliding down the side of a giant yellow pole with the RV rental in Alaska and paying full price for that fix (that 'extra insurance' is a scam even in the US) I was dreading what a Jamaican car company was going to jack me for a new rim!
No problem mon, all the locals on the beach told me. So later, I drive into "town" to run errands (buy rum and beer.. and snacks for the kids, shoot some video by the river of the fishermen and hit the ATM) I pull up to the store, and sure enough a couple guys want to fix my tire right there. They took me two blocks away, to a roadside hut, and a sign saying "The Tyre Man". Well, the Tyre man promptly jacks up the car, pops off the rim n tire, disappears for about 3 minutes and comes back with a perfectly rounded and straight rim and patched tire! All for $J500 Jamaican dollars (the exchange rate here is an annoyingly impossible 70 to 1, not easy to do quick math on) what a deal! The guys that took me to the Tyre Man asked for a beer and a tip that "suited my conscience"
Still missing a hubcap I drove back to our beach hut on Negril. We spent several days chillin and filming (I're as the locals say) Hanging out at places like "Tonys Bar" and "Chill Awhile" both sand floor tiny places outdoors with hammocks while the kids played with local kids (all the bars and 'restaurants' had a stash of kids toys), and other travelers from all over. Every day the "Patty Man" makes his walk down the beach selling warm chicken, beef and veg patties (like big empanadas, or Pasties in England) and coco bread for a US dollar. He has otter pops for the kids for 50 cents. The entire beach runs on "Patty man" time.. everyone asks.. has the patty man been by yet?. He walks with a big box of the goods on the back of his bike and sells out every day. He told us he has been doing this for 30 years and seems to make a darn good living (upon asking for change, his wallet proved to be very very fat) We got lots of video and interviews of this entire scene.
We kayaked out to Jimmy B's Margaritaville, and the kids bounced on the water trampoline. Two nights before we showed up as 10 ugly tour buses unloaded a few hundred moronic puking drunks from the mega resorts down the beach and the place turned into a horrid techno-party of toothless mullets yelling and getting naked. We gave it a second chance and were glad we did. We listened to Jimmy Buffet as the sun set and dozens of locals came out to swim and play. The Jamaicans are quiet, polite and well dressed. We kayaked around the water trampoline full of kids on glass-like water as the sun went down and perfect Buffet tunes drifting off the beach.. one of the most memorable highlights of our travels.
Other highlights of Negril was world famous cliff divers at Ricks Cafe, once a guys swimming pool that ex-pats hung out at, it is now a world attraction. Locals and the occasional misinformed tourist leap from towering cliffs and then from the trees growing on the cliffs. Nathan jumped from the 10 foot cliff and was very excited. Other restaurants nearby have caves to explore.
We drove ourselves down the coast to Black River and hired a local to take us up river by boat into the massive mangrove swamp to find crocs, which we did (we did the same thing on our honeymoon 12 years ago and it hasn't changed one bit.. except the two kids with us).. we then drove up to the famous YS falls.. weird name, but incredible sight.. 7 huge falls set deep in the jungle with rope swings.
Our jungle hut experience at an end, we drove ourselves north to the "gold coast" where most of the big resorts are to drop the car at Montego Bay airport and was promptly charged for not one, but all 4 hubcaps! "They have to match" I was told. Really...?? The cars here are held together with masking tape and the hubcaps need to match?? I demanded to take the other 3 "old" hubcaps that I had just purchased, but realized I didnt have anywhere to put them in our luggage (we pack for a week and do laundry as we go).. but they would have looked cool in the kids treehouse back home, or hanging in my office. I think I would have been outvoted anyway.
However I will be returning to Kingston tomorrow without the 3 hubcaps that are rightfully mine.
The next 4 days were spent at "FDR Pebbles Resort" where each family is assigned a Vacation Nanny! This rules and I would highly recommend it. The resorts are small - about 50 rooms or so, and kinda 80's, but perfect for us (beach, pool, geckos, sunsets and rum) We didn't do much in Pebbles, but a snorkel boat trip in a small boat where the kids caught baby puffer fish in their hands at a bathtub warm locals beach and made them puff up. We then headed over to the FDR resort, not named for the president but for the guy who owns it - Franklyn D is his name for the next 4 days. We took a local taxi out to some plantations and a town called Fallmouth, which got electricity and running water before NYC. Now of course it is a crumbling mess, but has some cool historic buildings and British cannons and forts for the kids.
At FDR, we have a new nanny and the kids a having a ball. They can get away with anything and everything with a Yea Mon No Problem west Indies nanny! (think Pepsi, Ice Cream, popcorn and Spongebob Squarepants on TV, which apparently knows no borders) We havent seen TV or the news for 2 weeks and seem to be doing OK. We spent a day with an adventure tour company where we experienced horseback riding in the ocean (I didnt.. the camera guy never has any fun) and went out for a ride with the Jamaican Dog Sled team! These guys train for the Iditerod on dry tracks in Jamaica. It was a highlight of this part of the trip - the kids loved the dog kennel and the "sleds" were very fast! The sleds were only two seaters, so the kids took off for a while. The sled was actually Jimmy Buffets sponsor sled and he sat in it too! The dogs wear ice vests to keep them cooled down. Jamaicans describing their first time in snow is pretty funny.
We packed alot in, and the kids.. and us do get fizzed out towards the end, but we realize now that in our working part of this we have to try to show everything, while most visitors on an actual vacation will pick one or two things. Guide book authors zoom around from place to place to present it all. While we cant really show it all, we try to pack as much in a possible and give a real flavor of the place beyond the packaged tour.
Tomorrow we are off - back to Kingston and Port Royal - yes the same one from Pirates that Jack arrives on in his sinking boat and the beginning of the first movie. Port Royal was real and was the center of pirates and the British West Indies until it was dumped into the sea by an earthquake. Theres nothing left, but we're going to check it out. It would make a hell of a place to scuba dive anyway. Alot of the 3 pirates movies are based on actual facts centered around Jamaica including the Pirate Bretheren court.
(begin soap box) All of the above cannot be found in a 2,000 room mega resort hotel. We (more than ever) encourage people to really travel and experience travel. If you spend all that money to get here, why stay in someplace that is just like home? I can go to the Westin Kierland for a nice meal and a massage and top end bathroom fixtures (how exciting) The larger the mega resort, the more bland and the experience. Besides, you'll save lots of money and have much better photos and stories in a small local village! (end of my soap box)
When we leave somewhere many times we miss being on vacation (or vocation in our case) but Jamaica is one of the few places that we will actually miss the island and the people itself. Its really the only Caribbean island that has its own unique (African) personality, music, culture and customs that is different than all the other islands that seem to have melded into one general Caribbean personality (with the exception of Cuba). The people here are different than anywhere else, the friendliest, very funny and have a deep history of slavery and colonialism. We havent ventured south to Trinidad, which I hear is the same way, but have been all over and Jamaica is very very different. Its been a long time since we hung out and talked to locals for hours about anything and everything - raising kids, families, work, Iraq, poverty, slavery, music, and other odd patois that we cant understand. and everyone we've met outside the resorts on the streets and beaches has been wonderful (except one or two)... and its really the people you meet, not the hotel you stay in that makes a travel experience burned into your memory.
Simmons from Runaway Bay, Jamaica W.I.