Monday, December 31, 2007

Jamaica - part 13

The main reason people go to Negril is for the beach, and a fine beach it was. It also helps if you like reggae music, which is played everywhere, including the beach. There were speakers tastefully built into stones that, on first glance, looked like something out of a Japanese rock garden. And as well versed as I am with reggae, the material I know and love is merely the tip of an enormous iceberg, the size of which may well be unknowable. Nearly all the reggae I heard on the island was new to me, fleeting portions of which were really fabulous.

Our last night at the hotel, which was the last night for many other guests, the buffet dinner was served right on the beach. The staff put a lot of work into setting things up, and the results were pretty impressive. There was a full moon, and the candle lit tables were placed among the trees, only yards from the water. The rum and wine poured freely, and the relaxing dinner was followed by some interesting entertainment: a man running around spitting fire, and a limbo contest for the very drunk and very limber (but not for anyone in between).

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jamaica - part 12

On account of all that driving, we decided against an even longer trip to Dunn's River Falls on the north coast, and to pass the following day more locally. Instead we hired a cab to take us to the Royal Palm Reserve just outside Negril. I had read up on this little piece of eco-tourism, which features a uniquely native species of palm. Like the Black River, it proved to be very Everglades-like, with a long wooden boardwalk trail leading through a lush wetland teeming with birds, butterflies and tropical foliage. It was great, but had a sadly overlooked and forgotten quality. Without the driver, we would have never found the place, sign-less and tucked away at the end of a dirt road. Although it was morning, the preserve was already uncomfortably hot, and the thought of the beach was really appealing.

Back at the beach, I decided to take advantage of the kayaks the hotel provided, and explored the whole of Bloody Bay. The water being clear, there was a creepy sensation of being suspended in midair, a sensation that was no doubt compounded for those para-sailing. There weren't reefs but areas with rocks and seaweed; otherwise the bottom was sandy. The nearly circular bay, which was once a haven for pirates and later an assembly point for the British fleet, is today mostly lined with resorts. Beyond the two points at either end are reefs, a little island called Booby Cay, and the somewhat rougher Caribbean Sea. Understandably the kayaks were restricted to the bay, and even there you had to be mindful of the occasional crazy jet skier.

The hotel also provided snorkels and masks, which I used just to see if there was anything to see. Maybe I would find a lost watch or ring? Instead I stumbled upon an actual living creature: a small sting ray, the size of a fried egg and the color of sand, nearly blending in with the sand but miffed that I had blown its cover. Apart from that encounter, there was nothing but sand.

The section of beach to the north of us seemed not to belong to any resort, but rather to "the people", most of whom were Rastafarian craftsmen carving wood and selling their wares. Along the beach was a thick jungle with clearings where some of these guys lurked in the shadows. It was a nice beach to walk down, but impossible not to get accosted by these beach merchants.

I gave these merchants a fair look at their wares. On the whole I get along well with Jamaicans, but some of these guys were pushy, and couldn't take no as an answer. The idea of "just looking" doesn't exist for them; they immediately start wheeling and dealing, and if you say you're not buying anything now, they ask "when?" and "where are you staying?" If you say you're not interested in their souvenirs, they immediately start offering you everything under the sun -- ganga, mushrooms, scuba tours.

There was one item I did like -- a piece of wood carved in the shape of Jamaica, showing the name and location of each parish, with the Jamaican flag painted in the background. As a geographically minded person it spoke to me, but also as an art object it had a lot of soul. I told the vendor, who was refreshingly non-pushy, that I would be back for it tomorrow. I kept my word and bought it the next day. The man remembered me, and after taking my money said, in the most beautiful patois, "the Lord will walk with you every day for the rest of your life" or some such thing.

Jamaica - part 11

The bus seemed to take a different route back to Negril, meandering through the back roads of St. Elizabeth parish, including the picturesque Bamboo Avenue, several miles of road flanked and shaded by bamboo. Then there were more traffic jams in tiny villages -- Lord knows why -- that provided more glimpses into Jamaican life, albeit through glass windows. The residents looked back at our bus -- one couldn't tell with indifference or irritation; they are probably used to seeing them, especially in the tourist season. I noticed "PNP" graffiti on the walls, the socialistic party that just lost elections to the more conservative JLP. In Jamaica these parties seem to play a similar role to the gangs in California, and as a look at the country's leading newspaper ("The Gleaner") confirmed, the national murder rate was a growing problem.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Jamaica - part 10

The last stop of the journey was the Appleton Rum Estate, just a few miles from the falls. Appleton is one of the top names in Jamaican rum, in production since 1749. As we passed through the village of Maggotty, I was feeling a bit drowsy. The last thing I expected to perk me up was rum, but that is exactly what happened. We entered a large pouring room and were given cups of of something that had rum in it, but also something sweet and uplifting.

The group was then led outside where various equipment and stages of rum making were on display. A donkey turned a mill that ground up sugar cane; the guide explained the separation of sugar and molasses, the latter of which is used to make rum. Spoonfuls of some sticky preliminary product were passed out -- rich, sweet and delectable. Then we were taken through the actual distillery. In contrast to the shiny steel fermenting rooms and crush pads of California's wine industry, this place was dark and heavy, evincing many decades of production.

After that we went into the aging room, where rows of oak barrels were stacked high. The guide explained that if we stayed in the room long enough, the vapors would make us drunk, silly, or crazy. There was a good discussion about the barrels, which were made from white oak, historically imported from France and England, and currently handed down from Jack Daniels in Tennessee. The insides of these barrels are charred, whereas the oak is essential in imparting the rum its unique flavor and color.

The final stop was a tasting of the full line of Appleton rum products. The clear and "pure" products tasted a bit too much like lighter fluid or gasoline for my tastes. I much preferred the ones with banana, coconut and coffee flavorings. A British guy was of the opposite persuasion, declaring the un-aged lighter fluid as the best of the lot. I tried asking him what he saw in it, and after conversing about various alcoholic beverages, I left with the sense that either I am a lightweight, or the Anglo-Saxon tradition of drinking is a form of rarefied suicide.

Jamaica - part 9

After lunch the bus plunged into the countryside us to YS Falls, touted as a less touristic alternative to Dunn's River Falls on the north coast. "YS" stands for Yates & Scott, the owners of the plantation that once operated there. A tractor-driven "jitney" took us through some lush rangeland, where the guides pointed out huge guango trees -- tropical oddities I'd never heard of. Today the falls are a first-rate swimming venue, with a series of stepped pools to choose from. We hiked to the top one, where physically fit Jamaican men told us exactly where to jump in, where to avoid rocks, and then guided us behind the falls. The currents were strong and the rocks slippery, so their help was not merely appreciated but essential. The water was completely refreshing -- fresh and just a little cold.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jamaica - part 8

After the river we were driven to an open-air restaurant on a hill, with a good view of the countryside. A simple buffet was set up, and since we don't eat meat we had spartan plates of rice and coleslaw. We conversed with our fellow travelers, who hailed from various cold places -- New York, Ohio, Utah, Canada, Poland.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Jamaica - part 7

The boat ride was a pleasant antidote to the bus ride. The river was neither hot nor humid nor mosquito-infested. It gets its name from the dark layer of peat on the river bottom, making the water look black even though it's clear. The guide was a knowledgeable and witty young man who could explain the difference between red and white mangroves, identify osprey and herons, and feed crocodiles raw chicken with his bare hands. The mangroves were huge, their "straws" extending twenty or thirty feet down in some cases. The crocs were few and far between and semi-domesticated from all the raw chicken.

Jamaica - part 6

The coast was beautiful, and near Savannah-La-Mar we passed a rusted old ship that had run aground. The island itself between the towns was green, green, green. Actually much of western Jamaica is tropical wetland or "morass", possessing a similar feeling to the Florida Everglades, except with mountains. Otherwise the ecosystems are similar. Our first stop was Black River, both a city and a river; in a matter of minutes we went from bus to boat to mangrove swamp with crocodiles.

Jamaica - part 5

No one told us we could use US currency. Instead we were awash in Jamaican dollars, of which there are about 70 in a US dollar, which creates some confusion in the vacationing brain. It didn't take long to notice that the locals favored US dollars to Jamaican, or that the favored currency of street vendors was jerk chicken. The hotel had a Cambio but no ATM, so we found ourselves walking to the nearest gas station a few times, which was a good introduction to the world beyond the resort. A sign informed us that Yellowman and Charlie Chaplin had played Negril a few nights back, something we would have liked to have seen.

Our longest excursion was a full-day bus tour to rural St. Elizabeth parish on the island's southwest coast. There were three actual destinations plus the ride itself, which provided a glimpse of the "real" Jamaica. The "real" started in the outskirts of Negril Village, where the tourist infrastructure gives way to a scattered stream of shacks and shanties and jerk chicken stands. The road got progressively bumpier, which when combined with the Third World auto emissions made me a little bit queasy. Meanwhile the guide was pointing out everything from Red Stripe beer warehouses to Breadfruit trees to the local Peter Tosh memorial.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Jamaica - part 4

The hotel was sort of a cross between the typical all-inclusive resort and a smaller "boutique" hotel with more attention to detail and design. The drinks flowed freely in usual all-inclusive manner, but with this twist: instead of bringing you drinks, you had to haul your ass to one of the bars. But to have to expend some effort was actually a good thing. Once you were at the bar, the bartenders were incredibly animated and willing to mix just about anything, or else suggest something, such as a "Mellow Yellow" (pineapple and rum, I think).

I went through several phases in the search for the right drink, so that I might stick to it. I started with red wine, my default drink of choice, and the Chilean and Argentinian reds they poured were all good. This being Jamaica, I wanted to give the Rum Punch a chance, but the sheer combustibility of the stuff knocked my socks off. So I switched to my favorite mixed drink, the Bloody Mary, which L calls an "old lady drink", and which the Jamaican bartenders add enough spice to burn a hole through your tongue.

Every day the hotel offered an array of excursions -- some near, some far. One afternoon after lounging at the beach we took the trip to Rick's Cafe on the south end of Negril -- a local institution verging on a tourist cliche, but also a great place to watch the sunset while enjoying a drink. Immediately to the south was the Negril lighthouse, the westernmost point of Jamaica. This section of the coast consists of cliffs, and part of the Rick's experience involves watching people, mostly visitors, dive off the cliffs. From an even higher vantage point, insanely buff Jamaican men heave themselves off the branches of a tall tree in return for whatever tips they can get. This I watched while a Bloody Mary burned a hole through my tongue.

When we later took an excursion further afield through the rural southwestern parishes, the guide urged everyone to try a "Dirty Banana" back at their hotel. It struck me that I had forgotten that banana is my favorite flavor, and that I should have been having Banana Daiquiris all along. The Dirty Banana is one of those iced drinks, like a Pina Colada, and I liked the one they served me back at the hotel. At a later point I asked for a Banana Daiquiri, and a different bartender responded with a serious look, as though I had touched a raw nerve. He took me aside and explained that bananas were not currently available, presumably on account of damage wrought by Hurricane Dean, and that he was deeply sorry. I was all too aware of how vital the banana crop is to the Jamaican economy, and what a hot button issue their banana exports are. I assured the man it was "no problem" (which by the way is the Jamaican philosophy). What wasn't clear was why I was earlier served a Dirty Banana, but that one apparently consisted of a banana "flavored" liquor.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Jamaica - part 3

I must say that our resort, "Sunset at the Palms", lived up to the expectations planted in my brain by various web photos and web reviews. From an aesthetic and design point of view the place was excellent, and has deservedly received accolades from the architectural and environmental communities. It is smaller and more personal than many of the sprawling, concrete boxes one finds everywhere in the tropics these days. The cabins are set in a true garden with a real, live gardener who gives nature walks through the grounds (for those interested botany and birdwatching). The beach is splendid and just a short walk across the main road. It's in a good location in the center of Bloody Bay. We spent at least three whole days just lounging on the beach. The food and drinks were all excellent. The staff were great -- very cheerful and helpful, you got the feeling they love their jobs. Later, after exploring the greater Negril area, I realized we were living in the lap of luxury.

From my informal survey based on languages overheard, the guests were mostly American and Canadian, followed by a sizable block of Germans, and a remainder of mixed, mostly European visitors. British, Dutch, French, and Spanish were all overheard.

The grounds were covered with an array of familiar and unfamiliar plants, including more Travelers Palms than I have ever seen assembled in one place. The gardener explained that in earlier times, these trees were a vital source of water for those traveling from place to place -- hence the name. He then slit one of the branches, and a clear stream of water came pouring out with the steadiness of a garden hose.

Meanwhile the beach was covered with Sea Grape and other tropical trees, providing welcome shade for those lazy days on the beach (although I spent most of that time in the water).

Jamaica - part 2

The bus finally broke free of the traffic and we sped through a greener, more rural stretch of coastline. Then general feel of the flora and climate was consistent with eastern US summers: lush greenery everywhere, probably largely invasive with Kudzu-like vines covering everything. All in all the country has very rough edges, the roughest perhaps being the roads. The road to Negril is a "major" highway, but is nevertheless quite bumpy and narrow. Motorists drive on the left, like the UK, but are constantly passing each other at high speeds, barely missing pedestrians and bicyclists along the edge, constantly beeping, and frequently heading directly at each other at high speeds. This is simply the Jamaican way of life, the bus driver explained to his freaked out US passengers, and it soon became clear to me that as long as experienced Jamaicans were behind the wheels, no one was likely to get hurt.

The driver was very friendly, providing whatever information the passengers cared to hear. When no one spoke, he tended to talk on his cell phone. I asked if certain stone structures were old sugar mills, and he explained that they were fortifications built by the English built them centuries ago to keep the Spanish and others from invading the island. He added that more recently a different kind of Spanish invasion was taking place, their hoteliers building massive resorts throughout the island, one under-construction behemoth of which we passed.

It began raining. The skies turned gray, and the azure sea also turned gray. Before long the rain stopped. The road wound through a handful of ramshackle villages, each with its own miniature traffic jam. The city of Lucea stood out as relatively picturesque and historic.

Finally the driver pulled over into a rest area/snack bar/souvenir shop. No sooner had everyone left the bus than one of the heaviest rains I've ever seen began pummeling the corrugated metal roof. I asked the driver if this was some kind of tropical storm, and he laughed. "No mon. No storm. This is tropical weather. The rain it cools things off". And just as suddenly the rain stopped and the sun came out. The driver was right -- these passing clouds of heavy rain are typical of the region, and they are a blessing as they cool the air and keep the dust down.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Jamaica - part 1

The plane from Atlanta to Montego Bay flew directly over Cuba. Now I can add Cuba to the list interesting places I've seen from a plane (along with Greenland and the Aleutian Islands).

Apparently there are few if any laws restricting alcohol consumption in motor vehicles as that was the first thing that happened to us after stepping out of the airport: the bus driver urged us to get drinks for the ride to Negril. While I'm not a big beer drinker I've always liked Red Stripe.

That bus ride was a strange introduction to the place. While stuck in traffic at the west end of Mo'Bay, I made some observations. This country has the largest Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets I've ever seen -- maybe three times the size of their US counterparts. Later in the trip a local explained that for Jamaicans, KFC stands for "keep from cooking".

Another thing I noticed was an abundance of white Toyota station wagons. Apparently they are the standard vehicle for taxis. It got my attention because this happens to be what I drive. What can I say, they're great cars. It's also another point of commonality between me and the Jamaican people.

Also while stuck in traffic we watched a large bulldozer push soil back and forth in a field. This bulldozer was followed by dozens of white egret-like birds that not only were unafraid of being run over, but presumably were reaping some benefit from the ordeal -- freshly upturned seeds?