“Welcome to Jamaica, where all is Juicy.”
Our bus driver and tour guide was enthusiastically rapping at us through his microphone as he swerved around potholes and oncoming semi trucks. Juice was his real name and he is, in my opinion, the most quotable man in Jamaica. He’s a real ambassador of Jamaica’s “no-problem” attitude mixed with raw energy and delivered in a thick patois.
“The Juice” was entertaining in more ways than one. On the drive to our mountain bike tour, he claimed that he could climb coconut trees. Someone at the back of the bus shouted out, “Show us!” Juice slammed on the brakes, crossed the street and scurried up to the top of a three-story palm. He then held himself out at a right angle and posed for pictures, and returned to the ground with a fresh coconut milk to drink.
That “no-problem” attitude and the palm tree climate was the reason we were in Jamaica. I like adventures, but I also needed R&R. My 16-year-old son and I love Reggae music. Air Jamaica was having a special on flights to Montego Bay from Los Angeles, so off we went.
I was feeling lazy so I signed us up for an all-inclusive package. We stayed at the Renaissance Grande Resort in Ocho Rios. The sheer size of the hotel and the monstrous cruise ships hogging most of the bay view made me feel trepidation about the authenticity of this journey. But once I had a pina colada in my hand and was lounging by the pool listening to Reggae, I felt better. I knew that we could sniff out the real Jamaica later. Meanwhile, we were comfortable and staying at the “no problem” resort.
The Grande presented much to please us: many Jamaican and European guests; the shiny black grackles who cleaned plates, made melodic porch swing noises and kept us entertained at the outdoor restaurants; the very rockin’ disco; and free daily lessons in patois in the lending library which gave the vacation a slight educational bent. Jamaican patois is a fascinating melange of the African Kikuo dialect, Spanish and French. Older folks from the countryside still speak a “deep Patois” which is completely incomprehensible to the English-speaker’s ear.
The hotel was also a good place to connect up with tours. That’s how we found ourselves in the company of The Juice Man. After a few days of hanging out, we were ready for an adventure and signed up for the Blue Mountain Bicycle Tour. At $80 per person, it was well worth the cost. The 2.5-hour drive took us over an incredible stretch of winding coast and up the mist-shrouded Blue Mountains, home to the most expense coffee in the world. We ate a hearty breakfast fueled by local coffee and then donned rain ponchos and mounted rickety bikes for the 18-mile ride downhill. The rainforest was dripping with butterflies, begonias, giant liana vines, and hibiscus blossoms. Steep valleys were arched by rainbows and blanketed by coffee plantations.
We bumped past a few settlements where Rastafarians peddled coffee beans on the side of the road. We stopped at a swimming hole beside a roaring river for a swim. They fed us lunch of jerked chicken, the most popular Jamaican dish, and then we got back on the bus where we were welcomed with a roaring, “Juice is in da house.” He pointed out all the phallic shapes between the top of the mountain and Ocho, announcing with gusto, “This is not in the brochure!” and “I’m going to wash it in patois but tell it in English.” I noticed the pervasive Jamaican sense of fine-tuned humor – in towns we passed the Destiny Pub and the Survival Market. One Jamaican tourist pointed to a cemetery and said, “There is the ‘no-problem’ hotel.” When the side window fell out on a particularly ferocious curve, Juice said it was the “no-problem window.”
Don’t come to Jamaica if you have a puritanical mentality. There is always a bar across from the church and Juice was not the only one who rambled on freely about ribald subjects. The next day I asked Jeff the cab driver, about going to a dance hall. He said, “Are you sure you want to go to dance hall?” “Yeah mon!” was my response. He asked, “You know how we dance here in Jamaica at the dance hall?” “Yeah mon, the windy-windy. I learned it in Honduras. Is it safe for me to go?” I responded. “Oh yeah. But I took some American girls and they were really surprised how close we dance. I dance with one of dem, she real good looker. I get hard—can’t help it. She get real upset.” Chris Baker, author of the Lonely Planet Jamaica guidebook notes that, “Jamaican’s sarcastic and sardonic wit is legendary and often laced with sexual undertones.”
My son and I found the Jamaicans funny, gracious and responsive once they heard the receptive tone in our voices, and saw the sparkle of curiosity in our eyes. We had only positive encounters and no one hassled us or ripped us off though we had been warned to be on our guard. When my son went a few blocks down the street on his own in Kingston to check out a music shop, guys walked by and high-fived him.
Don’t get me wrong – it is dangerous. We heard plenty of first-hand accounts of rip-offs and muggings. Our airport transfer van driver flailed a machete at another driver. I think Jamaicans might have a tendency toward violence. And the dance hall music is often punctuated with machine gun fire. Which made me ponder if machine guns are now considered musical instruments?
The only low-point of our trip was the tour to Dunn’s River Falls — the biggest tourist attraction in the Caribbean—I learned this AFTER we went. Luckily the tour, which included hotel pick up and drop off and a guide, only cost $15. The tour consisted of crawling up 900-foot high limestone waterfalls. Before you get all excited by this seemingly daring feat – it was quite lame and embarrassing. Basically a bunch of pasty white tourists all holding hands and winding their way slowly upward through chilly water on a cemented-over waterfall.
One good thing came out of that experience. We were attracted to music coming from a trinket stand. The owner was charming and turned us on to Garnett & Lloyd Cassette, THE place to buy Reggae in Ocho. It was a tiny shack absolutely pulsing with music. Reggae was pounding out of loud speakers onto the street. Garnett himself gave us a musical tour and helped us pick out a well–rounded collection of tapes to take home.
Another good place to buy music is in Kingston. We went there on the Bob Marley Tour. Bob was a big reason we were in Jamaica. We had to make a pilgrimage to the museum where the King of Reggae lived with his family and had his Tuff Gong Recording Studio.
A week in Jamaica gave us a well-balanced trip of cultural excursions and kickback time. We found Jamaica’s appeal lies in its distinctive, simple, evocative style and easy Caribbean pace. Chris Baker’s recipe for enjoying this island is: “Travel with an open mind, and you’ll have ‘no problem, mon!’
Odd details about Jamaica:
Sapphire moons really exist and happen every so often over Jamaica.
Bamboo is the tallest member of the grass family and grows up to 3’ a day.
The Queen of England is still the Head of State.
There are around 100,000 Rastafarians on the island, about 5% of the population.
The national flag colors are black for the people, yellow for the sunlight and green for the lush vegetation.
The 13 parishes are divided by rivers. There are 120 rivers.