Since our plans to go to Iceland in February had fallen through, I'd promised my girlfriend Jenny that we'd go somewhere during my vacation in April. Since she is not an airline employee, this meant I was scouring the net for airfare or vacation packages that wouldn't set us back a lot of money. Jamaica had been one of my early ideas for a destination, and in the end we bought a package from Apple Vacations. It included airfare from Columbus and five nights in Montego Bay at the Doctors Cave Beach Hotel.
Both of us checked out guidebooks and read up on interesting things to do while in Jamaica. I had no desire to be a "never leave the resort" type of traveler here (nor anywhere, for that matter). Both of us were intrigued by the idea of hiking in the nearby Cockpit Country -- a wild, hilly area with unique topography. The limestone has sunk down in pockets throughout the area, leaving a land dimpled with rounded little hillocks. The soil from the hills has eroded down into the valleys, leaving the tops with less vegetation than the thickly forested depressions. I heard a number of reasons why it was called "cockpit," but none of them adequately explained it. My guess is it is a descriptive term that would have made more sense a few centuries ago.
The Cockpit Country is sparsely settled. The only inhabitants are the Maroons, who are the descendents of slaves freed by the Spanish when the English seized Jamaica. The slaves were told to take to the hills, and that the English would want to re-enslave them. Understandably, the Maroons fought fiercely against the English, and even today, are semi-autonomous and pay no taxes to the Jamaican central government.
At the last second, we found out that Jenny's sore knee of the last couple weeks turned out to be a stress fracture, so plans of the wild and wooly parts of Jamaica had to be scrapped. When we landed in Montego Bay on a sunny April Monday, we were still scrambling to figure out what to do. We spent the first afternoon getting our bearings, walking around the "Hip Strip," as main drag Gloucester Avenue is called. Our hotel was across the street from Doctors Cave Beach, a small but gorgeous fan of soft sand with incredibly clear water. It is privately maintained, which meant that most people pay admission to enter (it was free with our hotel), and that hucksters and peddlers were kept out.
We'd read a lot of the "MoBay Hustle," as the sales pitch of the aggressive vendors, taxi drivers, hair braiders and panhandlers was called. As a matter of fact, I think harping on it is what keeps many guests of all inclusive resorts sheltering behind the fences of their five star idylls. Personally, I found the Jamaican hustlers to be tame compared to those in Bali, and a good bit less crafty with their scams. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be no scam with the hustlers at all. If you didn't want to take a taxi or get your hair braided or buy their crafts, it was "No problem, mon." They left you alone (as opposed to the Balinese, who think of more and more clever ways to TRICK you into owing them money). And the "danger" of walking around the streets of Montego Bay was -- once again, my opinion -- exaggerated. Jenny and I walked all around the Hip Strip and Downtown and never encountered anything remotely threatening. Trust me, I've seen a lot seedier and more dangerous places in my travels!
We spent early Tuesday scouting out the sightseeing trips we wanted to take, and arranging for the packages. That is one unfortunate thing about Jamaica. It is very difficult to see on the shoestring or "backpacker" level. Bus service is -- according to the guidebooks -- infrequent and unreliable, and the shared taxis (which would be the other way of getting around cheaply from town to town) are notoriously slow and hard to depend upon since they often will not depart till their car is full. So, seeing how we only had till Friday evening to do all our sightseeing, we were forced to rely on packages and excursions. Those arrangements completed, we hit the beach, only to see the sky cloud up a short time later. Within a hour of our arrival at the beach, the rain began to fall, and we packed up and headed back to the hotel.
This proved to be a theme for our trip: Sunny mornings followed by rainy afternoons and evenings. On the shuttle ride in from the airport, the driver had bewailed the drought Jamaica had been suffering. Monday night, we'd watched from our balcony as the skies unloaded a torrent of rain onto the streets. We'd smiled and said, well, as long as it waited till 8-9 pm every night to begin raining, that was fine with us. Starting Tuesday, the rains began to come earlier. Every day, it would cloud up shortly after noon and begin to rain by 2-3 pm. And this was no "gone in 20 minutes" tropical thunderstorm, either. These settled in for the duration, and were still spitting at us in the evening when we'd go out for dinner. Confused, we re-consulted our guidebooks, which insisted that Jamaica averages only 1.4" of rain in April. In our five days, we easily saw triple that. Some drought!
On Wednesday morning, we hoofed it downtown and saw the historic sights of Montego Bay, including the cathedral, town square honor slave rebellion leader Sam Sharpe, and Georgian style buildings. The rain caught us again, forcing us to wait under a sidealk overhang for it to slow down a bit. When it slacked, we dashed back up Gloucester to our lunchtime haunt, The Pork Pit. Excellent (and cheap) Jamaican jerk pork and a Red Stripe beer lifted our spirits a bit. If you go to Montego Bay, you MUST eat lunch here. For a couple bucks you get more than a pound of jerk pork, and can add in baked yams, sweet potatoes or "rice and peas (kidney beans)", the national side dishes.
We'd heard the nightlife in Montego Bay was nothing special (at least post-Spring Break -- not sure what it is like with hordes of crazy college students here!). We tried a number of the bars and hangouts, and really the only fun we had with fellow patrons was at our own hotel bar on "Rum Punch Night." The bartender kept the free rum punch flowing and the 10 or so of us had a lively time. Before I'd arrived, I'd envisioned beach parties with reggae music, but no dice. Speaking of dice, avoid the Coral Cliff Casino and its jungle-themed bar. Imagine a cross between Hooters and a bachelor party style "dance bar," with a bit of Vegas sleaziness (but none of its fun) thrown in. Yeee-uck!
Thursday proved to be a special day. We'd booked a "Maroon Tour" which went up into the Cockpit Country where we'd wanted to go hiking. Since no one else had signed up, we were to have a private tour...that is, WHEN our tour showed up. After about an hour of waiting in the lobby, I made some phone calls, discovering a "miscommunication." Our tour guide, Kenneth, showed up a short time later, apologizing on behalf of Maroon Country Tours. We told him that we definitely still wanted to go and were soon off, driving south out of Montego Bay. Honestly, Kenneth was the sole difference between a disappointing day and a great day. He was full of information on the local customs, people, schools, agriculture, history -- you name it. There wasn't a subject he didn't possess fascination tidbits of information on. He had us visit a local school, taste Jamaican food and stopped the car wherever we wanted to get out and take pictures.
Although we only skirted the edge of the Cockpit Country itself, we did get a taste of its scenery. Unfortunately, the skies opened up on us again as Kenneth's scheduled itinerary wound to a close in Maroon Town. So, though he'd said he was willing to add anything we wished onto the end of the tour, there seemed little point in driving through the mountains looking for scenic views in a rainstorm. Once again, we'd been cheated by Jamaica's "drought." I'd highly recommend anyone coming to Jamaica to contact Kenneth and set up your own tour with him, though. Bypass the travel agencies and tour companies and set it up with him yourself. He is in the process of setting up a website, and I will post his contact information shortly.
As enjoyable as Thursday was, our last full day in Jamaica proved to be the highlight. We'd scheduled a snorkeling excursion on Calico Day Cruises -- fortunately, in the morning. We were feeling a bit "snakebit" when we woke up to the first overcast morning of our entire trip. Every other one had been startlingly blue and clear. Our tour picked us up anyway, and it proved to be just us and a Californian man and his son. The haze was beginning to break up as our boat cast off from the pier. Originally, we were scheduled to have just a half hour of snorkeling. With such a small group, though, the crew said we could stay out longer if we wished.
Me -- Mr. Scared of Sharks -- was the first to jump overboard into the clear blue waters of the Montego Bay Marine Sanctuary. Immediately, my mask began to leak and I fought back a rising panic. I remembered a U.S. Army technique for clearing a gas mask and tried it. It worked, blowing the water out of the mask and sealing it tight to my face. Everyone was in the water, by now, and I followed the string of snorkelers away from the boat into the coral reef. It was like floating through blue canyons filled with aquariums full of tropical fish. I saw every type of coral I'd heard of, and more colors and types of fish than I could ever hope to the know the names. The longer I was out, the more my confidence grew. I was soon gliding across the top of coral in less than two feet of water, at times, startling the fish nibbling at the reef. If I saw a particularly colorful one, I'd follow him around for a few minutes, which doubtless made him wonder what the big hairy fish behind him was up to.
The boat's crew let us stay out for at least an hour, probably more. When we returned to the boat, all of us were pumped up. I took advantage of the free bar and downed a couple quick Red Stripes before we anchored off of Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. I guess, for the sheltered vacationers in their all-inclusive resorts, this stop on the itinerary is popular. Since the restaurant/bar (with the water play area of trampolines and such) is only a couple hundred yards from our hotel, it was no big deal. Even the 100 foot water slide was closed temporarily (probably due to the drought), but we had a good time bouncing around on the water trampolines for a half hour, and making our decision to NOT put on sunscreen before snorkeling that much worse of one.
Our final excursion for our trip was to be a night time boat ride through a phosperescent lagoon. The microorganisms in the water glow when it is agitated, so that boats, fish and even swimmers leaving a glowing path. This sounded really cool, since we'd be given a chance to jump in the water and try it out for ourselves. I was really looking forward to it, and was debating whether to risk taking my new digital camera along or not. Of course, I should have remembered that Jamaica was suffering a severe drought this week. Later that afternoon at the beach, the skies had opened up and the rain had driven us back to the hotel. A couple hours later, the phone in our hotel was rang to tell us the trip was canceled. I guess I have more in common with microorganisms than I thought, as they do not like the rain either.
As we left for the airport the next morning, I was almost daring our driver to bemoan the drought. Jenny and I reflected that somewhere in Jamaica, there are some really happy farmers. And the next time they have a drought, they should pay good money to bring her and I back to Jamaica...a LOT of money...