Though I had been to Jamaica several times, I had always taken the tourist route and rented a car or hired a taxi to visit some favorite spots. This trip would be different. I met a world traveler from my hometown who had visited the Andes in South America and backpacked all over Europe and he convinced me that it would be a fun trip….”You only have to ask me once, I said!”….and the trip was on! We decided to see as much Jamaica as we could in 10 days using only public transportation and staying where we felt welcome. I am a 6′ 3″ large man (nicknamed “Bigga” by the locals) and my traveling companion, Sergio, a Mexican-American who danced some folklorio ballet and stood a mere 5′ 3″ (on his toes!) looked like “Mutt and Jeff” as we left Sangster Airport going to the Montego Bay bus yard. The taxi driver tried to convince us that no buses were going where we were going and that he should drive us to wherever we wanted to go but we laughed and told him to drop us off just the same. Have you ever felt like your zipper was open and everyone noticed it? Well, that was how we felt when it seemed everyone stared at us in total disbelief that a tourist would “want” to travel the way they “had” to travel. In Jamaica, there are people at transportation stops whose job it is to fill every bus and taxi for the driver and they get paid for doing it. We never felt more wanted in our lives as several of these men began tugging us in every direction trying to get us on their bus. I said to Sergio, “Let’s try to get on a newer bus that may be air-conditioned but, we stared in horror at the only bus going to Port Antonio. It was an old school bus that Bob Marley could have ridden to grade school on! I have since learned that breaking up a long trip into shorter trips allows the option of taking better transportation but, what did I know then on my first trip taking buses? We were naive in believing that the length of the bus ride would be about 5 hours to Port Antonio judging by the map we picked up at the Jamaica Tourist Board booth in the airport. Little did we realize that, even though the distance we had to travel was slightly more that 115 miles, the trip could last 8 to 10 hours! (depending on number of stops, weather and condition of the road) and it was 3:00pm when we got underway. My best friend for the next 10 days would not be Sergio but an old, outdated Travel Guide which I never let get far from my sweaty hand.
The first thing I noticed through the plexi-glass replacement window was that the azure blue water was in sharp contrast to the dry, arid landscape of the Trelawny coastline. I had driven to Ocho Rios before but at a much faster pace and had never taken the time to enjoy the scenery. I have since learned that the getting there is half the experience of being there. The bus was crowded and Sergio had taken a seat with a Rastaman having dreadlocks to his beltline. I smiled overhearing Sergio in his Spanish-accent English trying to converse with the Rasta speaking mostly Patois. I was sitting in the middle of a bench seat that went across the entire back of the bus. The buses springs were shot and everytime we hit a pothole I would fly up out of my seat to come crashing down with a thud against the plywood sheet under the cushion. People would turn and smile to see if the tourist was okay and I would reassure them that I was comfortable with the added excitement. Rain clouds were hanging over the green Cockpit mountains to our right and a small amount of rain began to fall on the windshield as I watched the road ahead. The driver turned on the wipers. That was a big mistake as the bus had only one and it made the windshield useless. The driver, undaunted, hung his head out the side window and never lost a bit of speed. Finally the rain became sufficient to wash the caked dirt from the windshield as the wiper struggled to keep up with the increasing downpour.
I checked my $10 Timex that I purchased for the trip and noted that it was about 3:30pm and remembered that it rained everyday about this time during the rainy season and felt assured that it would soon be over. By the time we reached Drax Hall the streets were covered curb to curb with rushing water tinted red by the rich bauxite soil but, except for the occasional stops to pick up or drop off riders, we plowed our way forward. I noticed the lights of Ocho Rios in the distance as the sun had disappeared into the sea about an hour previous. The manicured grounds of the All Inclusive Clubs signaled that we would soon arrive. Holding my small flashlight in my mouth in the darkened bus, I scanned my Travel Book looking for somewhere to spend the night as it was now almost 8:00pm and getting to Port Antonio tonight was now not a reasonable option. I decided, at this point that during the next 10 days of travel, “Flexibility” would be the vehicle and “patience” would be the driver. I noticed on page 101 a mention of a little guesthouse in Port Maria about 20 miles up the road so on impulse I decided to signal Sergio with the flashlight that we would be getting off the bus soon. The expression on his face turned from a somber look to excitement as the prospect of leaving Ole Betsy (as we would come to call her) loomed ahead. The bus had dropped off most of her passengers in Ochi so I moved up to a seat across from the driver’s helper. I told him I wanted to get off at Sea Lawn Coral Beach and he said he knew of the place and that a Rastaman, Mike Higgins, owned the place and that he was his cousin. Another fact about Jamaica…everyone seems to be related to everyone in some way or another. After about an hour, the helper tapped my shoulder and pointed up ahead as he shouted “Driver, one stop!”. That was a phrase I had been hearing all day so I knew we had arrived. Mike, a 6′ 6″ tall Jamaican was the Soccer Star of the St. Mary parrish and his well-conditioned body showed hours of training. He was used to people who read about him in many travel books just dropping in so within about 30 minutes Sergio and I were settled in. Mike’s girlfriend fixed us a seafood dish of Lobster, Snapper and rice and peas which we ate with gratitude as Mike produced a couple of cold Red Stripe to wash it down. I offered to buy Mike a Red Stripe but he told me he was Rasta and that a Rasta ate no meat, drank no alcohol, used no tobacco and generally lived the “Ital” life. We spent the remainder of the evening on his private little beach discussing Rastafarianism and why Sergio and I should become Rasta when he reached over and lightly patted my portly stomach. “You know, I replied, I think there may be something to that!” We laughed well into the night………..Tomorrow is Day 2 and more adventures lie ahead!
Respect Bill Evans