Hedon Heaven

Trip Start Jan 29, 2008
Trip End Feb 15, 2008

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Flag of Jamaica  ,
Sunday, February 3, 2008

It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Montego Bay to Negril, but it took considerably less with Kingsley behind the wheel!  He was in a hurry to transport a couple of people from the Xtabi back to the airport and drove like a madman, apologizing profusely all the way.  Martin and I just sat back and smiled.

I had done a fair amount of research on hotels in Negril and there are plenty to choose from, depending on where you want to stay - along the main beach (Long Bay Beach) or in "the cliffs".  We opted for the cliffs as the area sounded quieter and more to our liking.  The Xtabi is a middle-of-the road hotel located along the beachfront and built overtop some caves.  It sounded fairly reasonable (about $90 CDN a night), small, quiet and interesting.  Well-tended tropical gardens surround the hotel; directly across the road is where the restaurant is located and where you can climb down to the caves to explore.  We quickly noted that we had to be careful crossing the road as the roads are winding and narrow, so it's not always easy to see vehicles approaching.  Likewise, when we decided to go out for supper the first evening, we found ourselves clinging to to walls and fences along the side of the road because there is no where to walk - and certainly no sidewalks!

Negril (population 3,000) was a small fishing village before its heyday in the late sixties and early seventies when it became a popular hippie hangout.  Those aging "hippies" still return year after year; some have stayed on permanently.  Marijuana abounds - it's smoked freely just about everywhere and its potent aroma fills the streets and bars.  Some joints we saw were rolled as big as cigars, with the partaker blissfully puffing away, producing a thick haze of heady, blue smoke. Negril is party central for those people wanting to get away from it all, laze on the beach and enjoy the night life. 

"Rastitutes" or "rent-a-rastas", young (and some not so young) Jamaican men, roam the streets looking for available western women to keep company.  All single female tourists are fair game here and and are pestered relentlessly by willing Jamaican men.  (I was propositioned only once - when Martin wasn't with me, of course!)  Many of these guys are not the real Rastafarians - the vegan, ganja-worshipping mellow fellows we all hear about.

Staying at the same hotel as we were was a couple of Winnipeg, Margaret and Lee.  He had lived in Prince Albert for seven years and was a pilot who fights fires in La Ronge every summer.  This was their ninth time in Jamaica.  They return here every winter for a month or so.  It was a theme we often encountered.

Our introduction to Jamaica was not very pleasant because we were robbed the first night we were there.  Someone came in through the window of our hotel while we were sleeping(!) and stole my cash.  We were in a room on the main floor of the hotel and did not realize that our windows (which had no bars or screens) were not locked.  So whoever it was slipped through the window, grabbed my daypack, unlocked and exited through the door, went through the contents of my pack and returned it back through the window.  (They had also gone through the pockets of Martin's pants and left them in the middle of the floor.)  Luckily, I only had about $100 US/CDN cash combined and they didn't bother with my passport, credit card or camera!  We found out that these sorts of robberies were taking place all along the beach, but they don't take anything that would incriminate them.  Cash is untraceable, unlike camera equipment, jewelery or credit cards.

The hotel manager and the owner did seem genuinely concerned, particularly when the Xtabi is one of the only hotels along this part of the beach that has security!  The silly part of it is that there was a safe in our room, but we hadn't checked into using it (nor had any of the staff mentioned it).  At least they didn't find Martin's money pouch, though it was sitting on the night table right by the bed.  They would have been about $500 richer if they would have scored his cash, too. 

What was so freaky about it was that we were in the room sleeping when they robbed us.  Usually, I might have woken up, but I was wearing ear plugs.  We were both dead tired from getting no sleep the night previous (i.e., in Montreal airport).  We assured the hotel manager that we were OK (besides being a bit freaked out), requested that we be moved to a room on the upper level and paid the small fee for a fee for the lockbox.  We were determined that the incident wasn't going to ruin our holiday.  (Word about the robbery quickly got out to the other tourists in the vicinity and we kept getting introduced as "the people who got robbed".  As seasoned travellers, we felt rather embarrassed about it all.)  That's just the way it goes sometimes.

Many of the Jamaican regulars had a daily routine which varied little from day to day.  They would go to the beach or hang around their hotel, then head for the Samsura Hotel for happy hour from 5-7 pm (sometimes it lasted a little longer if someone could persuade them to extend it), then on to Pee Wee's bar until it closed.   Pee Wee, the former owner of the bar, was the stuff of legends.  One day 14 years ago he went out for a swim and never came back.  His sister now runs the bar and every year the regulars have a big celebration on Pee Wee's birthday.

Single drinks are the cheap at Pee Wee's and no one blinks an eye about anyone smoking pot.  The thatch roof that covers the bar must be permeated with the stuff and the air is so smoky you can barely see across the room.  The night we visited, a huge Jamaican man with dreadlocks appeared, smoking a spliff the size of a large Cuban stogie.  Although cheap and abundant, Jamaican pot is not for the faint of heart.  That spliff would have put most of us white folks under the table.
It was at Pee Wee's that we met up with my sister's friend, Peggy, and her husband, Ron.  Peggy is from Saskatchewan; Ron is an American from Philadelphia.  A few years ago, after wintering in Jamaica for many years, Peggy sold her house and most of her belongings to take up residence here.  She makes and sells frozen cheesecake; Ron has a business repairing computers. They live in Jamaica year-round, but leave for about a month during hurricane season (June - November).  Before they depart, they pack everything in vacuum bags and hope that the place will be there when they return.
One afternoon, we took a taxi to visit with Peggy at the tiny 362 square foot house at Brim Hole.  Interestingly enough, they rent it from the owner of the Xtabi.  He and his Jamaican "baby-wife" live in the same compound.  It is an idyllic setting overlooking the ocean where you can watch the passing boats and admire the sunset.  The beach is accessible via stairs through some caves.  The house is surrounded by poinsettias, cashew, almond, orange and lime trees - and blowholes.  When the weather gets nasty, the blowholes erupt with water and spew it all over the place.  According to Peggy, it can be a pretty scary place during a storm as there's not much between them and the water.  They had to vacate during Hurricanes Ivan and Dean.
The inside of their house reminds me of a ship.  The walls and doors are beautiful polished wood.  Everything is very close quarters and they have had to be very selective about what they keep.  There are three rooms located indoors: a living area, a bedroom and a small bathroom.  Both the kitchen and the shower are located out of doors at the rear of the house; Peggy's locked freezer guards her precious cargo of cheesecakes.  She makes four kinds of cakes, key lime, mocha, peanut butter and Oreo, that she sells to the pricier hotel restaurants in the area and for special events such as weddings.  She has purchased metal containers for the cakes to ensure that they are delivered safely, though she says that, more than once, the containers have been returned with lots of dents from being used as musical instruments at wakes.  It has taken time for cheesecake to catch on here; when she first started her business she would get back a tin with the contents scooped out like ice cream.  Now she pre-cuts the cake into individually wrapped slices for ease of serving.  She mentioned that it was sometimes a challenge to get butter, sour cream and cream to make her cakes.
Peggy and Ron have several pets: two dogs, Joyce and Ryzla, and two cats, Skiddell (Jamaican slang for a wild, young woman) and Pita (Pain-in-the-ass).  We sat and visited with Peggy and their animals in their small front yard, admiring the view and watching the hummingbirds.
I asked her about her life there.  She does miss her friends in Saskatoon.  And the temporariness of their lives in Jamaica can be unsettling.  Every year, they have to make their way to Kingston to renew their visas and be fingerprinted.  It's quite an ordeal.  There's lots of paperwork - always "one more form" to complete.  She is attached to Ron's visa, so if he couldn't work here, she'd have to leave, too.  Finding good employees in Jamaica is a challenge and she has been unable to find someone to help with her cheesecake business.  As we noted at our hotel, customer service is mostly not a priority.
On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in at the Rick's Café which achieved fame for the young boys who dive off the steep cliffs into the ocean.  These days, of course, they only do it for money and tourists flock there in tourist buses from Ocho Rios and Montego Bay to witness the spectacle.  It was crowded, noisy and chaotic, so after a glance, we left as quickly as possible.

In Negril, we were introduced to a typical Jamaican breakfast consisting of saltfish (similar to a big baking powder biscuit), callaloo (a vegetable like spinach) and ackee (a yellow fruit resembling and tasting like scrambled eggs - weird).  We learned that ackee is poisonous until it is ripe.  We particularly enjoyed all the fruit in season: bananas, passionfruit, papaya, oranges and grapefruit.  Since Rastafarians do not eat meat, there are a number of restaurants that are vegetarian.  One evening we and a woman named Rosemary from Michigan checked out one of the vegan places.  The food consisted of red beans, tofu and "chunks", vegetable pieces resembling meat.  It was interesting.

It is also noteworthy that you can drink water directly out of the tap all over Jamaica.  Not having to worry about drinking the water served in restaurants or whether or not the ice cubes in your drink were safe was nice.

We didn't venture far our of Negril when we were there.  We took a walk one day down to Long Bay Beach, bought a hat for Martin in the market from "Sister Love" and ventured into town to go to the bank.  A couple of times we also rented fins and went snorkeling on the reef beside the hotel.  Although the reef was not very colourful (some blue fan coral and yellow sponges), we did see lots of fish: yellow, blue, black and white striped ones, pointy-nosed fish, sea urchins and squid.

Of course, the locals tried to sell us (or rather, sell Martin) dope just about everywhere we went: "ganja", "sensi", "joints", "hash", "honey oil","high test" and "something for your nose".  Though the drug salesmen were persistent, they weren't particularly pushy.  Drugs are not legal in Jamaica, just tolerated.  A young hustler named Tommy who hung out not far from our hotel tried to hit Martin up for something most times we passed, whether it a cigarette, a drink or whatever Martin could spare.  (He was also the one that hit on me one time when I was alone.   Just trying to take advantage of opportunity, I guess!)
Our last evening in Negril was spent at a Superbowl party.  It was at this little hot and steamy out-of-the-way bar back from the beach called Ragabones.  The host put on quite the spread of free food for the party-goers: fish soup, beef and lamb kebabs, fish and clams, barbecue shrimp, rice and peas(Jamaicans call them peas, but they're actually beans) and marinated tomatoes. The Red Stripe beer was flowing freely; tourist-guests and locals were milling about.  Because I don't drink beer, I purchased a mickey of "Q" of rum (most of which went home with me).  The cheering in the bar was deafening when the underdog NY Giants defeated the New England Patriots.  It was a loud and rather tipsy group that made their way back to their accommodations for the night.
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