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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Jamaica: the Romancing Rock

Everyone knows about Jamaica, right? The gorgeous north-coast beaches, Montego Bay and Negril, wonderful resorts, the rhythm of reggae and the visions of the Rastafari, James Bond and Noel Coward, rafting down the Rio Grande... But hold on - how much of this touches real Jamaican life? Journalist Nazma Muller, who has lived and worked in Jamaica, probes beneath the familiar stereotypes, and recalls times and places which brought her face to face with a different reality

  • Aerial view of Kingston. Photograph by Ray Chen
  • Frenchman’s Creek, near Port Antonio, Portland. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Photograph by Ray Chen
  • Sails on the beach at Ciboney Resort, Ocho Rios, St Ann. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • The Blue Mountains, from Hardware Gap. Photograph by Ray Chen
  • Town Hall, Lucea, Hanover. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Doing the rocks at Rick’s Café, Negril. Photograph by Ray Chen
  • The Rodney Memorial. Photograph by Roy O’brien/Jamaica Tourist Board
  • Devon House, Kingston. Photograph by Roy O’brien/Jamaica Tourist Board
  • Private Villa, Blue Lagoon, Port Antonio, Portland. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Ocho Rios corner, St Ann. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Trident Castle. Photograph by Roy O’brien/Jamaica Tourist Board

Before the summer of 1995, all I knew of Jamaica was Bob Marley, Blue Mountain coffee and dancehall songs on Trinidad’s radio stations. Such was our fascination with “The Rock”, the biggest brother in the extended family of West Indian islands.

So when I first went to Jamaica, it was the sessions, the stage shows, the rugged excitement of the ghettos and the blunt brashness of the people that I fell in love with.

But when I went back in 1997 (I was totally hooked, you see), I set about the task of settling down and becoming one of the “sufferers”. Or so I thought. I was not a “sufferer”, though; not by any stretch of the downtown imagination.

The nuances of the place began to soak in: the subtle but irrefutable differences between uptown and downtown, town and country, browning and blacka. I straddled both worlds, never fully understanding why I was not accepted by either, and realising that only Jamaicans can ever truly understand “yard”. Knowing that only made me more determined to see, hear, feel, touch and taste every possible experience Jamaica offered.

I cannot separate the two Jamaicas, romanticise one and demonise the other. They are two sides of the same coin, a powerful currency whose value can only be judged by those with open minds.

Jet blast on Palisadoes

We were driving along the Palisadoes highway, on our way back from Port Royal. It was around five o’clock and the sun was on its way home. The airport was on our left, the runway ending almost, it seemed, at the edge of the highway. The sea was on our right, blocked from view by an embankment that ran for miles until you reached the roundabout that could take you to St Thomas on the east coast or into Kingston to the west.

“Ever been to Jet blast?” Nicole asked.

I hadn’t.

Kent pulled over sharply and drove up the embankment.

Before us lay hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rocks. Light-green, dark-green, maroon, pearly cream, dark red, shiny, matte — they were piled on top of each other like huge marbles. Some were boulders, gigantic enough for a couple to lie on and daydream comfortably for hours; others were tiny fragments broken off from their monster-sized mothers. I went crazy, leaping recklessly from one wet, slimy boulder to the next, oohing and ahhing. I had to get them home to make a rock garden.

Where I’d put them I had no idea: I had no garden. As for moving them, Kent and Harry both gave me a sharp cut-eye and walked away.

Where did they come from? I asked, not too brightly.

From the sea, of course.

I looked at the crashing surf with new respect. How it had rolled these heavyweights along and then dropped them here was beyond my comprehension.

Surfers came here, Kent said, ambitious surfers. Oh, and this was a popular Lovers’ Lane.

I noticed a couple perched precariously on a ledge, clinging to each other; more from fear of falling into the sea than from amour, I suspected.

I wasn’t coming back for a dip any time soon. I turned back to the challenge of relocating some of these rocks. “Can I take some?”

Everyone laughed. Of course. I got confused, unable to decide between a big black rock with white swirls or a deep maroon with cream streaks. In the end, I settled for a few handfuls of pebbles and fist-sized stones, as many as could fit into everyone’s pockets. Some day, I’d have enough money to rent a crane.

Negril

Negril is a place I won’t be forgetting in this lifetime. I’ve been there only twice; but each time I’ve left bitter with disappointment — in myself.

You see, there’s this rock. It’s about ten inches wide and innocent-looking. But it hangs some 40 feet above the sea; those who have actually stood on it say it’s more like 80 feet.

A friend who made the jump a few years ago is still fuming because she didn’t have time to revel in her daring dive; as she hit the water, she looked up and saw a fat woman on her way down, ample derrière aimed at her head.

I made up my mind one day: I was going to drive the five hours it takes to get from Kingston to Negril, go into Rick’s Café, take off my clothes, clamber onto the rock and jump. Vertigo be damned.

It was just about sunset, and the sky over Negril was a blazing orange. I had prattled on to my friends at length about The Jump. No one was impressed, or willing to join me. We drove along the West End, as the cliffs are called, past dozens of tiny, rootsy eating places, fancy restaurants and clubs. My heart was thumping. I had on my swimsuit.

A wedding party was in progress when we crowded through the doorway of Rick’s; the reggae music was a magnet that had pulled in a few dozen tourists and locals. We squeezed through the crowd milling around the rock. A huge Marine type with tattoos was standing on it, poised to perform a Greg Louganis. He looked down at the water (it looked like 80 feet to me), took a deep breath and launched himself into the air, arms spread wide as he soared over the water. Halfway down, he brought his arms together and entered the water like a ramrod.

Applause broke out.

On the rock, another burly Marine was stretching, warming up for a 9.9 routine. My friends looked at me expectantly.

I looked down at the water. “Weeell, it’s kind of late,” I hedged. “And I don’t want to get the cold. Aren’t you guys hungry?”

They looked at me knowingly, but nodded.

We spent the next two days lolling on the famous white-sand beaches, gazing at the pale-blue water, frolicking in Hedonism II’s pool, kayaking past the nude beach to peer dubiously at what was on display, drinking copious amounts of different types of liquor, then stumbling home to our riotously-coloured wooden huts at the Kuyaba, where the beach boys were gearing up for a party on the sand.

But the rock haunted me. I didn’t know when next I’d be able to drive over 200 kilometres of mountainous road to get here. I had to jump.

On the last night of our trip, I left my room and walked to the bar. A fortune-teller was sitting at one of the tables. For J$500 she would look into my future. I raced back to my room and got the money. She spent an hour shuffling cards, studying my face, and saying wonderful things, like I was born to be a star, I’d be rich and famous, etc. But nothing at all about courage, or taking the plunge.

It just wasn’t in the cards.

The Blue Mountains: Hardware Gap

Why we decided to go to the Blue Mountains at night, I still can’t explain. But it was Friday, and escaping from Kingston to a retreat thousands of feet above the hectic heat was an irresistible notion.

The road was narrow, curvy and pitch-black. At one point, Derrick slowed down and switched off the car lights. Nothing. We couldn’t even see each other, just the carpet of Kingston’s lights, far, far away.

We almost missed the half-hidden track to the house. A friend of a friend had lent us his cabin for the weekend. We had to leave the car lights on to unpack the six bags of impractical groceries (cheese, wine, bread, and not much else) and stereo system. Our teeth were chattering from the cold; I imagined there was mist from my breath.

Surprisingly, there was electricity. But that was it for amenities. The running water was ice-cold. Heater? Ha. But the beds in the seven bedrooms all had comforters.

And that, I have to confess, was all we needed. When we stepped out on to the wooden front porch, the Blue Mountains were waiting to rivet us. To the north, one huge, dark mass rising after the other; as far as we could see, there was no end to them. Way over on another mountain there were two lights, signs of brave, enviable souls who had also escaped.

To the west, there was a bright, warm glow on another mountain, which I imagined to be a forest clearing. There was a small house nearby. I sipped some red wine, and wondered what it would be like to live up here, barely aware of a busy world racing past somewhere out of sight.

We pulled lounge chairs from the porch to a bit of lawn at the side of the house for a better view of the black behemoths. The air was biting, and we snuggled deep into our sweaters. We talked in low voices, rendered reverent by the scent of wild flowers and West Indian pine trees, the distant racket of crickets, and the inexplicable aura of the mountains.

And from inside, from the last word in technology, Charlene added her own spin to the web of magic: “Honey, I’ve been to Paradise but I’ve never been to me.”

Ochi

Getting to Ochi, as Jamaicans have dubbed the north coast resort of Ocho Rios, was half the fun.

Once we crossed Bog Walk, we entered a world of soaring mountains, English-green meadows and innumerable cows. The wild, untamed land of Xaymaca opened up before us on either side; but Kevin kept his eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel. The road was narrow, steep and winding; and truck and bus drivers tended to barrel down it.

Ochi was where I stayed four years ago when Sunsplash, the reggae festival, invaded the hills of Dover. There, I got a glimpse of the luxury life that awaits tourists. At the Plantation Inn, there was a sunbathing deck a little way from the jetty, bobbing up and down in the clearest, bluest water; jet ski operators cruised around and topless tourists sauntered along the powder-soft shore.

The town is a maze of bars, clubs and wonderfully seedy little places where anything can happen. The craft market sold more T-shirts than I could choose from, so I abstained and bought a Rasta cap.

But what I remember Ochi for, besides a panicky climb up the slippery rocks and roaring waters of Dunn’s River Falls, is a little session in the back of nowhere. One right turn after Irie FM’s headquarters on the highway and we were on a dirt track. I was in the country. Trees and bushes crowded around, leaving space only for chicken coops, goats, and small, cosy houses.

On a Friday night the weekly session was under one very large tree, next to one very small shop. We got there when the sound system was already in the groove. The music wasn’t loud, just enough to stir up the vibes and the trees rustling in the cool breeze.

There were hardly any lights on, just one half-bright bulb from the shop. The music was more hilarious than hot; the most recent soca song (played for our benefit when it was discovered that Trinis were underfoot) was ten years old. But boy, did the women jook waist to Dollar Wine. One middle-aged mama, weighing no less than 250 pounds, took centre stage. She wined and wiggled, rolls of fat jiggling in time to the music. She came close to putting a feisty young girl in a tight, flowered dress in the shade; but this damsel had all the moves. As her waist jerked, the watching males exclaimed in appreciation, “Yes Iya!”

Port Royal

The road is long, with many a winding turn (and nuff potholes); but the fish is worth it.

The smell of it spiced the air even before we turned into Port Royal, the first port in the English-speaking Caribbean. Fried with a lot of seasoning, yes! But as we rounded a corner, I saw the old wooden apartment buildings. Food forgotten, I could only stare into the small windows, the lights inside them an invitation to daydream of life a century ago: taverns, and the bawdy laughter of sailors and fishermen hanging out in the glow of kerosene lanterns.

I snapped back to the sound of children’s laughter.

Night is still the time to socialise in Port Royal. Faces were relaxed, smiling, just as they might have been in the 1890s, still knowing a sense of safe, warm community that has gone from the crowded tenements and gritty streets of Kingston.

At Gloria’s, one of the more famous restaurants, our crew grabbed a table in the road. Cars cruised by, a mere 10 inches behind Winston’s chair. We paid the speeding Benzes and Bimmas no mind. The fish arrived — fried, steamed, in brown stew, crisp bammies on the side, covered in tangy strips of cho cho and onion soaked in pepper.

Of course I needed two Red Stripes to wash it down, and then a visit to the loo.

The police station was just across the road. Naively, we sauntered across, and chatted up two officers who warned us that the water was probably locked off and we’d have to tote buckets to flush. The corridor was narrow, dark and filthy. We walked along cautiously, an eye out for rats, barely noticing the bars on the right. My head almost hit the ceiling.

Unblinking eyes stared at us from the cell.

“Uh, sorry,” I squeaked.

We hadn’t expected a lock-up in the police station (duh), still less eight men crammed into it. We were in and out of there in two-twos, gulping the night air in relief.

On the main street, two large speakers had been set up outside one of the shops. Boys slouched on one side, girls on the other. A few daring bodies were stirring up the vibes with the bogle, tatty and bubble-dances which Jamaicans invented and which only they can do justice to.

This was the Friday night session in Port Royal, and though the dancers must have heard the same big tunes every week, they were feeling the dancehall like it was a new sound.

The sea lapped gently against the jetty across the street, the music pulsed a heartbeat rhythm, a hearty breeze blew, and it seemed like every face, body and building was alive with laughter.

Frenchman’s Cove

Confession: the one time I got into Frenchman’s Cove was when I stormed.

The idea of gaining entry to a party when you’re not invited, or without paying, is nothing new; in Trinidad it’s an art. My defence therefore is culture.

We had driven for two hours down from the Blue Mountains to try to get into a very expensive, all-inclusive, all-day fete at Frenchman’s Cove, only to be told that there were no more tickets for sale. Scalpers were selling theirs for double the originally outrageous price. We saw West Indies cricket captain Brian Lara waltz through the gate. This was definitely a hot party; we had to get in. Which meant one thing: we had to storm.

Now, Frenchman’s Cove is just that. A cove. There was no other way in except by sea. So that was the route we took.

About a half-mile up the road, we parked. There was a steep climb down to the water. We waded past another property, griping about the rocks and keeping a sharp look-out for Rottweilers, then scrambled up the embankment on the other side and — into the party. We couldn’t believe it. Paying party-goers were strolling about, most hovering around the food and drinks.

A quick wipe-off of sweaty brows and we headed that way too. To still our convulsions of guilt we loaded up on Red Stripe and platefuls of curry goat and jerk pork. The music was pounding, and everyone else was half-drunk. Here were the makings of a good fete.

But my conscience bothered me; we shouldn’t have done it. A fete was just a fete, after all.

Then I looked across the white sand to the east. Mint-green water, the likes of which I’d never seen before, glimmered through the trees. A river. Calm, unmoving, as if it had been there since the beginning of time. It was like a slice of Amazon rain forest, two steps away from the rowdy beach. The sand was silky between my toes. I stepped into the water and felt my feet go into shock. The water was ice-cold. I took a deep breath, ducked below the surface and came up gasping.

My body went blue and I started to shiver; but the chill had cleared my head instantly. All the guilt was gone.

Cactus

The smoke was thick, a haze over the bobbing heads, bumping hips and bubbling bosoms.

“Cuz ah you have the upper hand, gyul, you know?”

Deejay Tanya Stephens was pumping out the lyrics on the sound system. And she was right: the women were in full control. Skimpy, shiny, slicked to the max, they ruled the floor: rubber waists and rounded backsides, harnessing the power of sexual lyrics and infectious rhythm into a contained mobile fury. The bodies were a wave, surging back and forth, side to side, on the tide of dancehall vibes.

Dancehall is the most scandalous, sexually explicit music in the world; if you ever decipher any of it, brace for the shock. Cactus was the place to see it interpreted in body language. About half an hour from Kingston, in the sprawling housing scheme of Portmore, Cactus is a hardcore club where the selectors have to satisfy dancehall’s most demanding fans. The hits come hard and fast, mixed in with conscious reggae, R&B, soca and whatever it takes to keep feet moving and waists gyrating.

Most deejays have nightmares about flopping at the Cactus. Win over the crowd and your stocks rise; flop, and you’ll be needing a therapist.

Up to a couple of years ago, on her way to claiming status as Jamaica’s number one female chanter, Lady Saw performed — and I do mean performed — at Cactus. She wore a lime-green, see-through, mini-raincoat number with very little underneath. Lady Saw’s claim to fame is her raunchiness. That night, as she went through her hits, which included Stab Up de Meat, she was joined onstage by Ghost, a hot songjay famous for his falsetto style. The club suddenly got steamy. Sweat glistened on men’s foreheads as the two deejays mimed a mutual passion, mikes clutched in their hands, eyes closed. The cheers from the crowd almost drowned out the music.

Later, Bob Marley and Luciano would chant down Babylon, and love music would move couples into passionate embrace. Inevitably, though, it would be back to the cool, arrogant dance-off, as Beenie Man, Bounti Killer and Buju Banton took the dancehall massive through the motions and emotions of sex, love and politics in Jamaica.

On the streets of Kingston

“You’re going where how?”

I gathered there was a problem with my going to Portland by bus. I figured all I needed to do was get to downtown Kingston or wherever the buses left from, jump on a bus, and I’d be off to Navy Island, which everybody waxed lyrical about.

The bus was the problem.

“You mad?”

I’d heard that before; I was undaunted.

I got as far as Manor Park. On some (bad) advice from someone who had never actually taken a bus to Portland, I took a taxi to the Manor Park bus stop. It was just after midday and the sun was broiling. I’d just stepped out of the taxi when another taxi driver spotted me and explained why I should hire him for, oh, about J$4,000, to take me to Portland.

“Mooma” — I don’t know why they call young women Mommy — “Mooma, you nah get no bus ah go Portland now. Dem only leave in the morning and in the evening, ‘bout 4:30, five o’clock.”

I didn’t want to believe him. Minibuses and regular old belching buses were careening by every two seconds, headed to Lawrence Tavern, Stony Hill, even Port Maria. But none for Portland.

Five minutes later, my knight in shining armour was engaged in a rowdy debate over a fare. Colourful was the word for the language. Then he spotted a fellow taxi man, hailed him out, and put his sparring partner in it. “See here? You ah go free with him. Nah bother me again, all right?”

Then he turned to me. I offered him a cigarette but he had his own. I offered him a newspaper to read, and we sat down on the concrete bus stop bench, side by side, reading. The West Indies cricket team had just lost a semi-final place in the World Cup and were homeward bound, but Patrick — he introduced himself with a gentlemanly handshake — wasn’t too bothered.

“See here, Mooma, it’s like when you own a restaurant and business ah go good fi you. You nah bother tek time to cook the food good, season the meat and thing. You just a study to cook plenty and mek plenty money. Ah so the West Indies team stay. Dem ah just want mek plenty money and dem nah work hard and play the game proper.”

Patrick, I was to discover, had a philosophy about everything.

“Trinidad calm and cool,” he said, as we finally drove away from the bus stop, he having convinced me that a bus to Portland before 5 p.m. was something, like God’s face, I would never see. “Jamaica rough and rude.”

This was chanted. I looked suitably impressed.

Patrick’s lyrical prowess apparently came from having once been a top deejay. “You never hear bout me? Beenie Ranking? Me sey, me was bigger than Cutty Ranking one time. When meh finish deal out the lyrics, dem couldn’t find Cutty nowhere. Me just blow him clean away.” Mr Beenie Ranking, however, now weighed about 150 pounds more than when he might have been considered small or beenie.

He’d left that life behind for a more stable one, but he knew the runnings of the business. By chance, he had picked up an old lady with market bags who turned out to be a top deejay’s mother. On the way back to my hotel, he regaled me with juicy details about the star. “Him nah treat him mother right. You think sey me ah inna position like (here he called the deejay’s name) and me mother ah tek bus or taxi? Nuh suh.” And Beenie Ranking launched into a diatribe about how a Mooma ought to be respected: “Ah she bring me inna dis here world.”

What a piece of suss, dat! Beenie Ranking sure gave value for money. Jah alone knows whose business I would have found out if he had driven me all the way to Portland.