Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summa Bounce: The Land of Butterflies

As a child, Jamaica was a home a way from home; a place my mother took my brother and I to spend warm summers soothed by the fresh sea air and sand. She always said it reminded her of Virginia (where much of my family is from) because of its dirt roads and expressive spirit... and the older I got the more I saw evidence of that spirit in the passions I pursued. Among my many loves, traveling became a way for me to connect all my passions into a single tapestry of sight, sound, emotion, and magik. But no matter where I go I always feel that little longing deep in my heart. I've missed my home.
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Our first stop was Negril, a place I’m not so familiar with but have come to appreciate for their fresh cooking and raw attitudes. We stayed at Country Country, a beautifully built group of bungalow style cottages perched right on the beach. The water was breathtaking! With the shore only steps away from our cottage door we promenaded the beach like a city sidewalk. Next door was MargaritaVille; a tourist-friendly franchise, which attracts the foreigners who see it as a symbol of safe Americanized fun. This in turn attracts the hustlers because they know where there are tourists there’s a dollar to be made. An array of operators pitching everything from fresh lobster and marijuana to jet-skis and prostitutes gather every morning on that beautiful beach looking for a mark. That’s one side of life on the island. Tourism is such a huge part of their daily lives that most people whether working jobs legit or illegitimately, depend on it for economic survival. It may have been a bit different if we were on private property but the thin line between wanted and unwanted advances is always present. Yes, there are unsavory characters and a bit of pestering on the part of some, but if you can get over the annoyance and look forward to the phenomenal selection of restaurants, fresh produce, and activities you'll definitely love the South Coast.

Sitting in Cosmo’s; a great local beach-front restaurant down the road, my stepfather explained, “In Jamaica, we speak our mind!” And besides noticing how much Jamaicans constantly make comparisons to themselves and everyone else in the world, I saw the boldness of the country through the raw exposure Negril granted us. Everything was wild and untamable. The ocean water off the reef at Jackie’s left me changed. Rick’s CafĂ© on the cliffs was like something I’d never seen before and the Pelican Bar in the middle of the ocean at Black River was worth the adventure we took to get there. I just couldn’t wait to see what was next!

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In these photos: Jenn and Chris L. at Rick's Cafe

It's the way the Now is more important than the moments past and ones to come. In a place where nothing is guaranteed I've found the best option is to lay back and let go of any and all thoughts associated with worry. Locals will be the first to let you know, "Here, every thing's cool", even when something similar to a civil war breaks out between the people and powers-to-be, over a certain drug lord's extradition to the states. On the North Coast, l found a sense of freedom rivaled only by my memories from childhood.


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In these photos: Jenn overlooking the balcony at the Riu

Jenn and I took a walk down Main Street in Ocho Rios (affectionately called Ochi) to see what we'd find, who we'd meet, and ended up in the crafts market filled with an assortment of trinkets, nick knacks, and carvings. I spent every last dime I had on a wood carved skeleton I'm sure the seller swindled me into paying too much for. I did it happily. We walked the main drag toward the Island Village Shopping Center as I reminisced and time tripped about all the other times I'd walked that very same strip. And to top it off I was feeling so good about buying Charlie I'd let my confidence soar, when a deep voice on my left side casually said, "What would make you go and buy such an ugly thing?!". I looked up to see a bald headed, tattered looking guy, blunt in hand, walking clear past me. He looked back with a jerkish smirk and I replied in a playful tone, "Excuse me? This is a very nice sculpture. It's to protect me from people like you". He continued to insult my taste and suggested that Jenn and I go down with him to see where real Jamaicans chill. Passing Island Village we made a turn into open gates greeted by a LA-fitted-wearing-kid and a couple decked out in downtown gear. They could have been Sway Kids, Cali Kids; they were just like us. Walking in and out of dimly lit bars and shacks Tony led us to the beach where we crossed some rocks and moved through a passage way around another gate. There were three other guys now, as Tony took a victorious stance; both hands on his hips pointing to the Ocho Rios MargaritaVille right behind us. "You still paranoid?", he asked. I wasn't anymore. The guys pulled chairs up for us right where the tide just missed our feet. The fitted-kid rolled another blunt and lead the conversation into culture and politics. Tony, at first refraining to speak on the issues, began to give insight into how his original home in the UK (where he left his wife and kids) got too heavy. I could hear the bitter taste in his voice as he explained the game and how it goes for guys like him. They all had a story…one as familiar as the next. I told them they'd be amazed at how similar they were to boys in Brooklyn. They weren't amazed at all. "It's the same for black men everywhere", Tony said. LA raised a blunt. Then Tony said, "But it's not as bad as that ugly thing you wasted your money on!". Of course, they all laughed at me as the coolie boy, Chenoy who had placed his seat close to Jenn asked, "Why does he have so many ribs?!" We laughed, talked, exchanged info, and all.
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In this photo: Tony at Fishermen's Beach

Heading back to the car to meet up with the fam, Jenn and I felt an interesting satisfaction. "That was like Nostrand Ave on a beach", she said. But no matter how much they seemed like boys back home I wondered...how did they see us? Were we just foreign girls in their eyes? No matter how much we talk and laugh were we still different? As we headed to our resort and they went back to the hustle, I couldn't help but question myself.

The guys had mentioned something about a ‘real party’. Not those 'shit parties' at MargaritaVille. They'd said there was a party at Priory but we had no idea where or what Priory was. Sunday came and after asking my stepfather and having him bet we’d be drunk and in bed by midnight, he agreed to take us there. Priory was a small little town between Ochi and Runaway Bay, which seemed to center around a beach. We had no idea what it'd be like but if heads said it was the place to be we wanted to be there too. Pulling onto the rocky road leading down to the beach the yard was full of shadowy figures making their way toward the sound system. Jenn and I walked around the bar to the sand and found a nice spot right under the full moon light. Everyone's face glowed a silvery blue. It was an amazing sight. So many men surrounded us; each group with that one guy who'd come up and introduce himself. One guy worked at a resort in Runaway Bay and said he'd brought some of the guests who stayed at his hotel but when they came, got scared and asked to be taken back immediately. Another kid was from Kingston and came all the way down to Priory for the party. It was the usual Sunday event; A well-known affair around JA. We'd bumped into Chenoy as he walked back and forth handling business. Two stepping to the music I realized how loose everyone was compared to us.

They had no shame in showing their joy. Not there or anywhere! In fact, most everywhere you go you’ll see somebody moving! (Made abundantly clear after a trip into the store, Del Sol, where the whole staff started wacky dipping to the riddim on the radio). New Yorkers in all our coolness can be pretty lame when it comes to truly letting go. So busy tryna look cool we never enjoy ourselves. But there was a group of guys in front of us, JAMMIN! One of them looked back and asked me to dance and of course I charmingly declined. Truth be-told, I was nervous. Here I am in a land best known for their dancers and a guy who can clearly dance me into the ground wants a dub?! Oh no! Not embarrassing myself! Now I can dance don't get me wrong but I didn't know how my pseudo-Caribbean whine would translate among the locals. He handed me his drink and said, "That's your drink now. You're safe. We won't let anything happen to you here". And in that gesture, which usually would be met with suspicion, I saw the simple difference between our mentality and that of many Jamaicans. Especially in the North Coast, you gain a sense of the simple joys Jamaican life has to offer. They’ve no desire to swindle you because they just wanna have fun! In fact, through out our adventure we’ve come upon more people genuinely lending a hand when they weren’t obligated to than anywhere I’ve ever been. To me, this is the true spirit of Jamaica; the understanding that right is right and wrong is just plain wrong. And that, if someone needed help the proper thing to do is help. Maybe this is why Jamaica has always been able to maintain its cool through a history riddled with economic struggle. To the core, it is the people who have banded together to help make things happen. All with a laugh and a smile, a cup of rum and their hands in the air. We quickly got with the program and partied with our new friends everyday for the rest of our trip.

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In these photos: Various friends in Ocho Rios

The all-inclusive resort, although expansive and beautiful, didn’t offer the kind of food or kind of time we liked, but were free to come back and forth despite the attitudes of the guards at the front gate. They even went as far on one occasion to ask our friends to get out of the cab while the driver dropped us off at the main lobby, which I’m sure was their way of politely hatin’. The locals know too well that the resort policies are structured to keep them out and keep tourists bubbled in. Along side the policies comes slightly scewed perceptions had by both parties. It’s not that the locals don’t like the presence of tourists...they just rather not go to places where tourists are treated better than them. That’s all. Country life is that simple. They want to have the opportunity to make enough money to live a happy life. No extravagant fantasies of moving to America and ballin’ out in a mansion. And certainly no ambitions of being a drug kingpin like Ox in Belly. As LA put it, “We don’t want to go to the US. We like it right where we are. We just want to be respected.” The ordinary Jamaican just wants to be treated with the same respect as any other person. That’s where the friction between local life and tourist-friendly fun rests for now. But if you truly want to see the country in all its romantic, joyous, and sometimes backward ways, take that chance and venture into the unknown. There are a few more tips I’ll give that will be especially helpful to single female travelers so catch me on the follow up post where I'll go a bit more in depth on restaurants, hotels and resorts, spas, local activities, and hang out spots on the island.

1 comment:

jen said...

LOVEEEEEEE!!! You know you've had a great vacation if you can take it back home with you :)