Island Time

So I’ve been trying to make a post about the trip, but I’m having trouble reconciling what I expected and what I found to be true.

We got off the plane and it was so hot I almost melted right there on the tarmac, but I tried to enjoy it, because it was Jamaica. We took an interminable shuttle bus ride to our hotel – over two hours with almost no transmission and potholes everywhere – and I tried my best to fall into rapture over the passing scenery. Corrugated aluminum ghettos, handmade cities of concrete, pristine beaches; white sand meets azure sky meets sprawling luxury resort purgatory. I just couldn’t get a handle on things.

Everything in Jamaica, except the inner sanctum, smells like wet campfire. It’s because of the jerk shacks, I imagine, but I don’t really like the smell of burning wood, even when I’m actually camping. Our hotel room, tile-floored throughout, had an aroma vaguely reminiscent of my grandparent’s basement: moist upholstery that’s never quite gotten the chance to dry.

The town of Ocho Rios, like the drive from the airport, is an uncomfortable mix of real-life poverty and prefab luxe. Although I wanted to wander and explore, doing so was made almost impossible by the unending stream of local men offering to help – help you find a restaurant, help you walk back to your hotel, help you buy pot. It goes without saying that, for all this help, you will give them a tip ranging from five to twenty American dollars.

To see the “Real Jamaica”, you have to hire a cab. The local roads are largely unmarked, and the local drivers show no mercy. Add to this the facts that the steering wheel is on the right side of the car and the lanes are likewise switched from what we’re used to here in the states… I was more than happy to fork over some cash in exchange for the bodily safety of Katsumi and myself when, on our last day in town, we took a 5-hour private car ride to Bob Marley’s tomb.

I don’t mean for this to be a sum-total trashing of Jamaica. It is beautiful, except for the tourist-trap duty-free strip malls and the pervasive all-inclusive hotel chains. The people are exceedingly friendly, when you’re not trying to skirt around the roadside hucksters, and the food is divine, as long as you’re in the mood for curry or barbecue. But I wonder, from the way people talk about Jamaica, what kind of Jamaica they were experiencing. I’m not really into staying behind the crystal gates of a Sandals, playing Pictionary and being waited on hand-and-foot. I like to roam and wander and experience the culture, and that was a very hard (not to mention expensive) thing to do. So Jamaica mon, respect. But, as I said before, bring a boatload of small bills and your game face. You’ll need both.

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