I was trying not to slip as I traipsed over stone pavement in the drizzle at the old fort at Port Royal in Kingston, the “wickedest city in Christendom,” a warren of iniquity and plunder, den of pirates and buccaneers, and the core of British naval power in the Antilles for 200 years.
As a retired coast guard captain who was born there and lived nowhere else in his 60 years led me around, conjuring up scenes of mayhem, killers, prostitutes and smugglers, I scanned the remains of the fort, nearly deserted that morning, and saw nothing that remained of the glories past.
Ruminating about the eerily quiet grounds, the captain sighed and recalled the historic turning point of the Port Royal story, the midday hour on June 7, 1692, when an earthquake toppled most of the city and 2,000 people into the sea, the day Port Royal became a ghost town.
Jamaica was born out of conflagration. Fire and brimstone, slave rebellions and insurrections, hurricanes and earthquakes.
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On some islands, the tale would be a defining one, but here, it was just a slim chapter in a dramatic history. Jamaica was born out of conflagration. Fire and brimstone, slave rebellions and insurrections, hurricanes and earthquakes. It was inhabited by Taino Indians, who named it Xaymaca, and shaped by European conquerors, first the Spanish, then the English.
The British turned the island into a huge sugar plantation, its wealthiest colony in the Caribbean and the hub of slave trade in the Americas. Planters built magnificent houses high above their sugar cane fields and lived lives of idleness, gorging on drink and wanton sex with slaves.
At the center of Jamaica’s ethnic and political complexity is race. As in Antigua and on other Caribbean islands, the social and economic division between mostly white “haves” and mostly black “have-nots” runs deep. Old grievances and injustices drive much of the political violence, gang crime and economic problems that have bedeviled the island.
But it seems something is changing. The government is stable after long periods of tumult, and it is pushing to rein in crimes against foreigners, gang-and-drugs shootings, and evangelist-reinforced homophobia. The economy is still wobbly but showing signs of health, and tourism, the island’s No. 1 industry, has risen to at least 1.5 million visitors a year.
With such high stakes in tourism, the island has begun looking beyond its traditional market, the sand-and-sun visitors and the stable of honeymooners who reliably fill the giant middle-brow Jamaican-owned Sandals and Couples resorts.
Glossy videos and magazine advertising showcase a paradise island of multiple attractions including eco-tourism, bohemian tourism, spa and wellness tourism, even niche tourism like Jewish Jamaican Journeys. It’s an all-out campaign to drum up travelers to Jamaica’s alchemy of nature, adventure, night life and sensuality.
The government also has passed legislation that will bring the first casino-hotel resort to the island, Celebration Jamaica Hotel and Resort, set to open in a year or two in Montego Bay. The resort has a Canadian company behind it, but much of the new tourism investment comes from Spain and Mexico, posing a challenge to longtime Anglo-American dominance.
For all the three centuries that Britain ruled Jamaica, though, the island’s deepest influence is not English. It is African.
For all the three centuries that Britain ruled Jamaica, though, the island’s deepest influence is not English. It is African. It is folk magic, spiritual and superstitious. It is musical, the poetry of the hills and the streets, the rhythms you hear in the way Jamaicans speak, the imploding pulse that runs from east to west, from the resort-strewn north coast to the rougher south.
Folk magic out of West Africa, not unlike Haiti’s voodoo and Cuba’s Santeria, feeds the Jamaican belief in superstition, witches and ghosts. Magic runs through a pervasive fundamentalist and evangelical Christian society that breeds revivalist cults that speak in tongues and believe in spirit possession.
Rastafarians are something else. Born of poor and black Jamaicans, they worship inner divinity, hold ganja smoking as a sacrament and are as essentially Jamaican as reggae.
“Reggae is synonymous with social consciousness,” a young Jamaican woman told me. “It means black empowerment. It means Marcus Garvey (the father of the black power movement). It means Rastafarianism.”
This was the Jamaica that I wanted to get to know better.
So after lunch at the historic Devon House in Kingston, the former estate of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, I made the rounds of several history museums with the chairman of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, Ainsley Henriques. As we browsed through rooms of ancient artifacts, pictures and other paraphernalia, Jamaica’s heroes came to life.
There was Paul Bogle, hanged after the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865, and Nanny of the Maroons, who led slaves to freedom in the Blue Mountains, and Sam Sharpe, hanged after the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. More recently, there was Norman Manley, the Oxford-educated nationalist who helped bring about independence in 1962.
There’s a museum outside Kingston for the reggae icon. But . . . all of Jamaica is a Bob Marley museum.
And there’s Bob Marley. There’s a museum outside Kingston for the reggae icon. He’s the myth, the mystic, who spoke to God, they say, who conquered the world. But I didn’t have to go look at the museum. All of Jamaica is a Bob Marley museum. A stream of gifted Jamaican musicians cycled through mento to calypso, jazz, rhythm and blues, and ska. Then came Marley, son of a white British officer named Norval Marley and a black woman, Cedella Malcolm Booker, and with Bob Marley came reggae, and reggae took everything in its path.
So that night I avoided the mobbed dance hall parties like Weddy Weddy Wednesdays and went to Redbones Blues Cafe, the highly acclaimed venue for Bob Marley’s musical heirs and a beehive of culture, art exhibitions, foreign films and poetry nights.
I hit it on a poetry night. It was raining off and on. The stage was soaked, and managers were fussing around, clipboards in hand. The bar was buzzing. Next to me, a graying foreigner in a white seersucker suit and sporting a ponytail was whispering to his blond girlfriend. Dressy couples held up cocktails and clustered under the bar’s roof.
Eavesdropping while sipping a Jamaican-style caipirinha, I ran my eyes over bar walls papered with photos of jazz and blues greats, while, oddly enough, American lounge music played in the background.
The next day, after a three-hour, stomach-churning ride through the mountains, Jamaica’s limpid blue skies and gorgeous seashore came to view. The resort city of Ocho Rios and the smaller coastal towns were bustling. People mingled on sidewalks and plazas, storefronts and markets, food stalls and at the Juici Patties, the local fast-food joints. I wanted to walk around, have a bite, but time was short. I had to get to Montego Bay.
I had imagined Montego Bay would glitter with opulent hotels and restaurants, clubs and shops — and it did, in the resorts — but the town’s “Hip Strip” (Gloucester Avenue) was a letdown, lined with midrange hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, hostels, souvenir shops, jerk food stands, hustlers and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, maybe MoBay’s most popular club. It was the version of Jamaica that its tourism folks wanted to rethink.
I hit the city on the last Friday of the month, when folks get paid and go downtown to spend their money. St. James Street was a clogged artery of cars, trucks and buses, a revolving elbow-to-elbow mass of people going through food stalls, bars, clothing stores, haberdasheries, computer depots, supermarkets, carwashes and plazas reverberating with the earsplitting sounds of hawking vendors, chattering voices and full-volume music. I wanted to step down and join in, but I also wanted to get out of there.
After fumes and crowds, I was hoping for a drink and fabulous food. Friends had talked up Scotchies, the island’s best known jerk emporium. I had expected one of those smoky places with picnic tables and paper tablecloths. I found a quaint roadside joint with an open-air bar and a few outdoor tables for large groups.
A dozen customers, foreigners mostly, were knocking back Red Stripe and digging into servings of jerk pork. I ordered the same. The beer was ice-cold, but the pork was tough and tasteless. I kept pouring a spicy goop over it but it didn’t help.
A day later, on my way to Negril’s West End — after my debit card was “eaten” by a Scotiabank ATM and after putting up with unreliable land transport — I wasn’t sure that I would ever have a great day in Jamaica, or worse, that I would ever feel that inexplicable connection to the island that I had felt in Antigua and San Juan and Havana.
Two hours down the Norman Manley Highway south to Negril, flashing by speeding bicyclists and motorcyclists, herds of baby goats, bold-paint wood-and-tin homes and the open sea, Jamaica began to work its charms on me.
Then, there was Negril’s West End and the Rockhouse Hotel. Magic!
Then, there was Negril’s West End and the Rockhouse Hotel. Magic!
It was visually fabulous with flowers in bloom, bougainvillea vines and almond trees, and shaded winding paths that led to hexagonal thatched-roofed villas of timber and stone looking out to the sea. At a glance, Rockhouse lived up to its reputation, one of the loveliest boutique hotels in the Caribbean.
But extreme contrasts are inevitable in Jamaica. Across the road from Rockhouse’s fancy gift shop, several ramshackle souvenir shops sold typical tourist wares — T-shirts, flimsy dresses, scarfs, hats and trinkets — and a short ride from the ecocentric serenity of Rockhouse, hundreds of tourists flocked to Rick’s Cafe, a boisterous bar-restaurant-music hangout with a cliff-diving show, super bars and sensational sunsets.
I checked out the scene one afternoon, tried to get a bar stool but gave up fighting the crowd. A singer was dancing on the stage, and people swilling from paper cups clapped to the rhythm. Soon, rather suddenly, as it does in the tropics, the sun went down, and with that the party broke up. The crowd streamed out, pushing and shoving.
Tour buses, vans and taxis packed with riders lumbered out of the parking lot. It was a crazy scene, as crazy as Negril’s infamous boat parties and bar shuttles.
That evening at the Rockhouse, I was having a drink and chatting with an American couple who came back every year, and had married and honeymooned there. Even with its high occupancy rate, the hotel opens its restaurants to the public. Expats living in Negril make it their club, where you might meet old-time hippies in sandals like Janet, a blustery San Franciscan who married a local 27 years ago and is building a house with a swimming pool on a hill.
Early morning, I was on a sleep cloud, tucked in on a pillowed four-poster bed, a slow ceiling fan ruffling a pinned-up muslin mosquito net. Jumping off the bed, I opened the shuttered doors to my private deck. The roiling sea melded with the distant blurry horizon, and I watched as a small boat with a single passenger, man or woman I couldn’t tell, heaved and tossed in the rough sea. Waves leapt, crashed and spat foam maybe 50 feet high against the Rockhouse cliffs. From somewhere on the nearby road drifted the lilting music you hear everywhere you go in Jamaica.
Later, only a 15-minute drive away, I was dipping my feet in the sea, strolling along the popular (and overbuilt) Seven Mile Beach. The fluffy white-sand strip was crowded already. Tourists were ensconced in lounge chairs, their bodies laid out to toast.
A rangy vendor with dreadlocks, hollow cheeks and bony legs followed me, dangling a bunch of bananas in one hand and clutching a plastic sack containing who knows what. Peddlers and hustlers are a plague all over Jamaica, but this guy didn’t push it. When I said “no” politely, he backed off.
Grateful, I picked up my walk on the lumpy wet sand. The sea sloshed around my feet, splashing my legs. Glass-bottom boats and fishing charters swayed in shallow waters, waiting to take divers and snorkelers to the coral reefs and grottoes that make this Jamaica’s dreamiest coast.
I had been in Jamaica five days, and finally I was steeping myself in the singsong and blithe spirit of the island.