Jamaica It Is Part 2

We were up fairly early on Saturday morning and finished packing up the room. After one last Sea Castles buffet breakfast, during which we loaded our plates with fresh fruit, we were ready to check out. I made one last run down to the beach, mainly to take a few pictures and to rap with Raymond the Rasta, who helped Joey with the jellyfish sting. After a few minutes I was ready to go and made my way back up the lengthy stairs to check out.

I rounded up Sir G and we took his van to the front of A building. After we were fully loaded, we stopped at the office and checked out. I was now in the possession of a serious wad of cash but much of it was soon to return to the Jamaican economy.

The plan now was to run back west toward the Ironshore suburb, an increasingly Americanized area. We wanted to do a little souvenir shopping, plus needed groceries for the rest of the week. The Blue Diamond Plaza in Ironshore features one of Jamaica’s most American-style supermarkets, Shopper’s Faire.

First we popped into a pharmacy, then a souvenier-liquor store and finally Shopper’s Faire. The kids came with us and Sir G lounged in the van. This was a crystallizing moment for me, because seeing this store made me realized I could live in Jamaica someday, without giving up too many comfort items from the U.S.

The store wasn’t as modern as a Kings or newer A&P but it was North American in style. It compared to perhaps the older Grand Unions. American and Jamaican products sat side by side. All the familiar grocery items were available and in comparison, prices were like home. I loaded up on Jamaican coffee for gifts and also hovered in the hot sauce section for a long time. Yellow scotch bonnet sauce. Nirvana.

The meats were the only area I found somewhat lacking. I score Jamaican chicken high, at least as good as home. The main packer is Kingston Broilers and the stuff compared to the fancy free-range poultry at home. The beef was less eye appealing, although I did buy a London broil that looked nice. The produce on the other hand was incredible. Jamaican farmers do not use pesticides or chemicals, it’s all organic, and heirloom seed based.

The tomatoes are smaller for example, but garden fresh. We were finally ready to check out. I discovered the store had a liquor area as well, it was even cheaper than the liquor store. I grabbed a few items as gifts and selected a litre of white overproof 160-proof rum for Sir G. Trust me, in Jamaica it makes perfect sense to shower your driver with booze.

Our grocery total was just over $6000.00 Jamaican or about $160.00 US, but that included lots of extra Blue Mountain Coffee, and some Rum. The receipt is a keeper though, $6000 for groceries.

We were finally ready to go to the All Seasons. About ten minutes later we arrived and while I registered and paid, a few hotel employees kindly unpacked the van. I told Sir G thanks and that I’d call later if we needed a ride. We also learned that the female puppy had gotten killed the day before, darting into the A1. Awwwwww.

Our room was fine and in a short time we were unpacked and very comfortable. I evaluated the paddle boats and finally decided to make my way to the island. The beach was natural, very shell covered and not great for swimming. Once I got to the island it was better but still a little too unkempt for my tastes. I didn’t want to step on any sea critters. And there were many, Katie even saw a ray.

The kids however, loved the boats and went everywhere. I stuck to the pool area. Later that afternoon, I recruited Joey and Katie for a walk. Courtney hung out in the unit with Cormac. We set out to walk east down the A1 to Greenwood, a small town about a mile away.

The walk wasn’t bad, except for the whooshing of cars passing us. The town was laid out on the inland side of the A1, with one main street. There were a few stores, mainly ill-stocked local grocery stores. The road was very littered. Once in town, I wandered into a small bar-restaurant. We paused to enjoy a cold Red Stripe and to chat with the locals. Joey fell in love with the young barmaid and made friends with some regulars, including Mr. English, who demonstrated how to roll a proper spliff, not information we were eager to impart to Joey. The barmaid had to intervene and stop him from giving it to Joey, explaining that with American’s it’s not ok.

In rural Jamaica you generally have to ask what a restaurant has that day, menus are for tourist places. The cook came in from outside and told me she’d have jerk chicken ready in five minutes. I wasn’t starving but I’m a sucker for jerk. I ordered a portion to go and soon we were heading back to the hotel, another foil-wrapped delight in hand. I was briefly confused by another Jamaican peculiarity: just because you buy food while in a bar, don’t expect one check. The food bill and drink bills are separate, mainly because the cook keeps the food proceeds.

Her jerk was good, but prepared over a gas grill, so it wasn’t much better than mine at home. That evening we were hankering for a sit down dinner and called Sir G again, this time to run us into downtown MoBay to The Pelican, a long-established restaurant favored by both tourists and upscale locals. They serve dressed up versions of local cuisine, plus typical diner food.

The kids were able to enjoy a familiar meal, while Katie had curried chicken and I had escoveitched fish. Sir G met us after he ran another fare and drove us back. Cormac hadn’t eaten well and I asked the boss man to stop at McDonalds at Blue Diamond Plaza, my favorite haunt.

Mainly I was curious if it was a real Mickey D’s. It looked like any cookie-cutter McD’s in the U.S., except for the $25 milkshakes everyday sign, and signs for $30 chicken nuggets. Inside it was real, even more so than at home. They still fry the fries in lard and they actually had bins of catsup packets and other condiments, where at home you’d have to beg for them.

I ordered us a couple of extra value meals, mainly to see if they tasted real. The verdict, it’s Mickey D’s. We were amused by the whole thing, especially that the happy meal toys were the same one’s being offered back home. Obviously Mc Donald’s can overcome all the local supply problems and bureaucrats, and maintain good standards.

We relaxed around the unit that night, and enjoyed having 50+ channels, including News 4 New York and WPIX. We laughed during the News 4 weather, which lamented the constant rain since, oh, a few hours after we took off.

DAY FOUR: The lady wants Lobster….

Day four found us pretty well settled into our routine at All Seasons. Joey & Courtney spent a lot of time using the paddleboats. Courtney got a bad sunburn, her shoulders blistered and peeled. After that she was forced to wear a T-shirt at all times.

I was becoming fascinated by the lifestyle of the locals. I had wanted to check out Long Bay, the town before Greenwood on the A1, and about ¾ mile west of the hotel. There were a few local restaurants, including one which looked slightly upscale, Yazo. They even had a glass enclosed air-conditioned dining room.

There were also craft stands along the road in Long Bay and I wanted to buy a nice wood carving as a memento. But I was being picky; it had to be something special to us and not just a mass-produced Rasta head or fish. I also wanted to buy it from the artist and not some craft market higgler who resells other people’s art.

At around 9:00am, I headed west toward Long Bay by myself. I stopped in at Yazo because they were busy with local customers. Today’s menu was fried fish, a Jamaican Sunday morning favorite apparently. They would have curried goat and fried chicken in the afternoon but for now it was fish. I passed on the fish fry and stopped to chat with a few fishermen. No one had seen lobster that day, so we were out of luck.

I passed a few craft sheds, all closed. Finally I came to one occupied by an older Jamaican man, who was hard at work whittling at a wooden crab.

His shed was a mess, and his teeth were worse but Winston turned out to be a real find and a great man. He had a wooden rooster he had just finished and I felt pretty strongly that I had found the big purchase, but I wanted Katie’s O.K., as it would be our largest single souvenier splurge.

Winston said he would be there until at least 6:00 p.m. so I promised to stop back later, around dinnertime and show Katie the carving. Winston wanted $75.00 but that was the starting point. I prefer to higgle* with cash in hand, so I promised to talk later.

I also visited a local store that was very different for Jamaica. This lady had a small mobile home type facility converted to a snack place. She sold ice cream, meat patties, soups (for a place that’s always over 80 degrees, they eat a ton of soup.) I picked up a few ice cream bars for later and headed back to the hotel.

I ran into Junior and Jason, two brothers who are loosely connected with our hotel. They are both 14 but not twins, Irish twins. Jason has a twin brother also. I think their grandmother was the hotel laundry person but I’m not sure. They also knew the hotel owner’s nephew, who lived in the hotel security trailer. Both of the boys were charmers and beach bums, but not too concerned with school. They had befriended Joey the day before, mainly to share his paddleboat.

They bummed a snack off me, but at $25 J per meat patty or about fifty cents, I was happy to buy them lunch. I had planned on walking the A1 back to the hotel but they wouldn’t hear of it. A few hundred feet past the edge of Long Bay, a concrete retaining wall curved toward the sea, disappearing off into the brush.

Junior led the way, hopping on the wall. We followed the wall a few hundred yards, then when it ended, we continued along a well-worn footpath. Only somewhere like Jamaica can such pristine beauty go undeveloped, even unseen. We walked down a natural beach fringed by mangroves. Coral, shells, and driftwood were everywhere around us.

At a bend in the path, we stepped onto a tiny and private beach, to the surprise of a young local couple. They were in bathing suits and very decent, but our trespass was a surprise or at least the presence of a big white guy. Finally we came to the hotel’s property line. The boys led me through a fence and after a quick step back onto the shore, I was directly behind the hotel’s utility building.

Later that evening I fixed dinner for the kids and left Courtney in charge. We told the night manager, Mr. White, where we’d be and left Courtney with one of our walkie talkies. We planned on walking down to Long Bay, having a look at Winston’s artwork and hopefully finding our long-anticipated lobster dinner. Now I knew that legally we were out of luck, as lobster is off-season after April 1. I wasn’t worried about the legal issues; Jamaicans still fish with dynamite so I’m sure they’d take lobster out of season.

The other problem which I knew was they were not very active at the time and the fishermen in Long Bay hadn’t done well with lobster during our stay. Junior and Jason were keeping an eye out every morning, and advising me on the daily catch. There were three main restaurants in Long Bay and I already knew Yazo (the most American looking of the three) was out of lobster.

Mr. White and a few others had suggested the Seafood Inn and at first glance it seemed fine. A nice wooden bar area, an air conditioned dining room and a few seafood choices that night, but sadly no lobster. Shrimp, which I filed as plan B, but no lobster. Katie looked bummed. She wanted to go back to the All Seasons.

We decided to pop in on Winston and check out the rooster. Katie liked it right away also and we ended up talking turkey. I settled in on $55 US plus he’d throw in one of his crabs, which are more mass produced. He peddles them mostly to the tourist buses which often stop on the way to Ocho Rios. I figured it would look good at Mom & Dad’s beach house.

Then we tackled the lobster question. “Did we check at the Turtle Inn?,” Winston asked. Frankly the Turtle Inn looked very third world and I knew it wasn’t Katie’s kind of place. And there were a bunch of young local men hanging outside and near the adjacent “convenience” store. Winston said he was sure they’d have lobster and he’d walk us over.

On the way over Katie was hit on by a young Jamaican in a fairly nice Honda. Those guys happen to love large women and are shameless. He had several women in his car but wanted Katie to come along too. She ignored him. He then produced a bag of herb, which he wanted to sell me. I declined. He then offered to trade, “I give him this, you come with me.” Not the worst offer I’ve ever had, but no deal.

Winston shooed him off finally and he drove away with a grin. Winston introduced us to a young man outside of the Turtle Inn, whose family runs the restaurant. Winston lapsed into a thick patois and then after a quick discussion, he smiled, “Ya, mon, they have lobster tonight.”

Winston was going to go polish up the rooster while we ate (that sounds bad, huh?) and I offered to buy him a drink first. While Winston ordered his white overproof rum, Katie caught a glance at an elderly Rasta sitting at a side table, busily rolling a joint.

“I want to go back to the hotel right now,” she said, still bothered by her recent admirer. I took in a deep breath and decided to stick it out. “You said you wanted lobster, they have lobster, we’re having lobster,” I declared, in measured tones, like the agent in the Matrix.

I ordered a red stripe, and Katie asked for a rum punch. “We don’t have rum punch, we have Turtle Inn punch,” the bartender advised. Katie ordered one. A server led us both into the empty main dining room, and seated us at a nice table under a ceiling fan. We had already ordered two lobster dinners and a bowl of conch chowder to start.

Katie’s Turtle Inn punch arrived and I smirked. It was deep brown in color and had little flecks of something in it, which I knew to be seaweed. Jamaicans are fond of Irish Moss based drinks, a local seaweed. The Turtle Inn punch was murky brown and full of Irish Moss. I guess to be polite, she tasted it, and so did I. It was like watered down ovaltine. She ordered a Coke.

The Conch chowder was excellent in my opinion but the conch was in large chunks, which Katie disliked. I ate hers too. During the soup, I got a hint that we might be in for a wonderful meal. First the soup was wonderful, a great broth. While I was eating I glanced to my right and an elderly local man walked in with literally one hand full of fresh picked carrots, leaves and all. In his other hand was a plastic basket filled with fresh picked green beans.

It took a good time for dinner to be served, even by Jamaican standards. But I heard sizzling and sauté sounds from the back and some great smells came our way. Finally the cook herself and another woman came out, with large white plates. The presentation was amazing. We were served a nice sized split lobster tail (Jamaica has Caribbean Spiny lobsters, which do not have claws). The tail was drizzled with a light buttery broth and garnished with scallions. The lobster was arranged around a large serving of sautéed carrots, green beans and green peppers.

They left a large bowl of Jamaican beans and rice on the table and we ate every last morsel. The lobster and veggies were among the best meals I’ve ever had, anywhere and the dinner itself had terrific presentation. I made sure to lavish the cook and staff with praise and we left a generous tip, especially considering both meals and our drinks, plus Winston’s rum resulted in a tab of about $25.00 U.S.

On our way back to Winston’s shop, we met Grevil Nemhard, Winstons’s cousin. In a small town like Long Bay, we were already known, as they don’t get many tourists in comparison to MoBay or Negril. Grevil walked us over and as promised, the rooster was shined up and ready to go with us. I paid the man and told him I’d stop back because we wanted his picture with his shop.

Once again Jamaica managed to surprise even me. We were way off the beaten track, the only white folks for miles and totally at home and we’d just had a meal that would pass muster in any New York fine dining restaurant. I even have a sneaking suspicion that they didn’t have lobster until Winston sent the owner’s son into MoBay to buy some and even if that’s true, it’s still fine with me.

We walked back to the hotel, our rooster in hand, full of both culinary joy and awe for Jamaica’s boundless surprises.

DAY FIVE: Watch the cruise ship…

I was the first one up again, as usual and headed out to walk to Long Bay and see the fisherman’s catch. I would have bought lobster anyway, even after the previous night but that wasn’t to be. They fish in these glorified rowboats that they call canoes. They tend to stay inside the reefs, so they aren’t threatened by the waves.

The daily catch was mostly parrotfish, a local fish that comes in numerous bright colors. The fisherman whose catch I inspected also had taken in three red snappers, a huge grouper and a very large Pompano Jack. The snapper, which I would have preferred, were already claimed by a local woman who owned a restaurant. The fisherman and his pals thought I’d be a good prospect for the jack or the grouper but I knew I’d be the only one willing to try any of the fish, so I opted for a few parrotfish.

The minimal purchase was $100 Jamaican worth or a pound, so I kept two and handed two to Junior and Jason, who had suddenly appeared and were helping work the rusty old scale. I told them to take them to their mother for dinner. Winston’s cousin Grevil was also assisting the sale, so I handed him a $25 Jamaican coin to clean my fish, which he did in the sea.

I stopped at the snack place to buy a patty and chatted with Winston who was eating some soup again, they love soup in Jamaica despite the heat. Shortly after I returned to the hotel, the boys arrived. I had been asking about fruit, especially pineapples. They were eager to report that the local produce merchant, the Rastaman, had been to the market that morning. I got a feel for the basic prices, then handed them $5 U.S. I asked for a couple of pineapples, some oranges or ortaniques and told them to get some stuff for themselves also. I figure my order was about $2.50.

After an appropriate wait, during which I’m sure they spent their loot, Junior returned with a nice array of produce. I was impressed. Later that day, I walked into Greenwood to “spec out” a modern looking hardware store. Katie had managed to break a nail, so I figured I’d buy crazy glue and see what was going on in Greenwood. The store was another surprise. They had just about everything a well-stocked True Value would in America and the employees were all dressed in business attire. I even had to do the silly Radio Shack type routine of giving my name, etc. to buy something.

Outside the store, a woman was selling grapefruit and yams. I passed on the yam, since it was almost Cormac’s size, but took some grapefruit, which she promised were sweeter than oranges. That turned out to be true but they were seedy, so I ended up juicing the whole bag full.

We ate in our room that night. I had made a beef stew from my questionable steak and some canned goods. Katie and the kids had that and I ate my fish, with a spicy Jamaican sauce. At around 7:00 p.m. the lights went out. Boo.

Turned out to be a rolling blackout, like in California. Jamaica had been experiencing power shortages, so the entire coastal area near MoBay is blacked out for a few hours every Monday night. I guess places like the Wyndham have generators but we were in the dark. I happened to have a flashlight and improvised a candle out of olive oil, a jar, and a scrap off of a dishrag.

We sat out on the verandah and waited, enjoying the stars and a passing cruise ship, likely one leaving Ocho Rios. I asked Mr. White how long the wait might be and he gestured to the ship.

“When the ship passes, the lights will come back on,” another typically vague Jamaican observation. I shared a few beers with another guest, a man from Venezuela and despite my poor Spanish and his lacking English, we settled in on a popular subject for both of us, Luis Sojo and the New York Yankees.

All the while this was going on, I had some chicken wings slowly baking in the hotel’s outdoor oven. I was in the dark, in the third world country, basting hot wings in the dark.

Mr. White managed to find another candle and gave us one of the battery-backup lights from the office. Cormac knocked over my olive oil candle, he wasn’t hurt at all but he was smelling very Italian. Finally after about an hour and a half, the lights came back on. The cruise ship, no doubt used to the weekly light show, tooted their horns in congratulations, as they passed out of sight on the Western horizon, bound for Mexico.

That evening I had a great chat with Mrs. Pam Whittingham, who owns the All Seasons. The Wittinghams are very nice people, whose main business is a large Shell Propane operation in Montego Bay. We discussed the hotel trade, Jamaican politics and families.

Mr. Whittingham’s family had founded the propane business in the early 1950’s. Turns out they were real pioneers in that it was very special at the time for such a business to be owned by blacks and dark skinned ones at that. Jamaica has the relics of such a bizarre class system that blacks judged each other on skin color and many blacks sought to “lighten” themselves through marriage.

It turned out that our politics were very similar, as they were conservatives and supporters of J.L.P., the Jamaica Labor Party, and not the liberal Peoples National Party, or P.N.P. The Wittingham’s had built the hotel to fulfill a dream for that property but the dream demanded a lot of work and sacrifice. I think I said this before but their property was really similar to a small New Jersey beach hotel.

It was moments like this, just chatting with normal people that made this trip so special. And Mrs. Witty, if you read this, I’m ready to come manage the hotel when you move to Florida!

DAY SIX: Sunset over Long Bay

Tuesday was a lazy day for us all. I’m pretty sure I walked down into Long Bay, as that was a nice morning ritual. Courtney and Joey played with the boats for a while but it was windy and the sea was rough, so it wasn’t a great beach day.

Later that day Joey took off with the boys to cruise the paddleboat down by their trailer. I told them they’d have problems due to the wind but Junior and Jason disagreed. Sure enough, the three of them walked back later, without the boat. I was sure I’d have to explain a sunken paddle boat to the Wittinghams but it was docked safely near the trailer, they just couldn’t fight the current back to the beach.

I asked Mrs. Wittingham about a ride into MoBay the following day, we wanted at least one day at a really nice beach and she agreed to have someone run us into town the next day. By this point in our trip, we were tight on cash. Not eating guava on toast but not likely to dine out again on our trip. We had a clean out the fridge night and had sandwhiches, burgers, etc.

The sun was just starting to set, so we all went down to the bar area, to enjoy the sunset over Long Bay. I took some of the prettiest photographs I’ve ever taken, as the sun dropped over the bay and disappeared. Just another perfect Jamaican sunset, the end to another perfect day in paradise.

Sorry to all my Rastafari friends in Jamaica. I respect your beliefs but just can’t see Jamaica as Babylon; New Jersey as Babylon, yes, Jamaica no way. Most Rasta’s believe that they have been placed in Babylon, a living hell on earth. They long to be returned to the land they were stolen from. I hate to be the detractor here but in Jamaica it never goes much above 90 degrees and stays above 50 degrees, even in the mountains. You can always find fresh water from the limestone aquifer below the whole island. Fresh fruits abound, the sea teems with fish and in the rainy season when their burrows flood, the locals scoop up the delicious local land crabs by the hundreds. Oh, and the Rasta’s sacred herb grows everywhere.

Compare that for a moment to their ancestral home of West Africa. War ravaged, plagued by drought, starvation and now AIDS. Clean water is a scarce resource. It’s very difficult to grow even a sustenance crop. Not a pretty picture, right.

DAY SEVEN: A visit to Doctors Cave Beach

We had arranged with Mrs. Wittingham for one of her employees to run us downtown to one of the three main beaches in Montego Bay. All of the public beaches in town are nice but the famous Doctor’s Cave Beach stands out. It’s a private beach, a small admission fee is charged. The beach is shared with Superclubs Breezes Montego Bay.

It’s a wonderful beach; crystal clear water, a reef offshore for snorkeling and a gradual slope, so you can walk pretty far before the water is over your head. A gentleman drove us downtown, I forget his name but certainly appreciated the free ride.

Of course the beach was amazing. We bobbed in the surf for about four hours. Cormac was covered in sun screen and under an umbrella but he managed to get burned. He started out with puffy spots under each eye but ended up with blisters. I was so sad, he looked like a refugee.

On the way back, we stopped at the post office. There were chickens roaming around outside. It was really just a building with little markings and a postal clerk inside.

After our beach trip, we had a quiet night at the hotel.

DAY EIGHT: Homeward bound mon

We lingered around the room and hotel in the morning. I made up some snacks for the trip home and finished packing. Mrs. Wittingham surprised us with a few gifts. Courtney got a Jamaica doll, Joey a keychain, Cormac a bracelet which we put away for him and a bottle of rum for Katie and I! I was amazed at how nice they were and this was very touching.

Before we left I gave our Styrofoam cooler and a lot of food items left over to the boys. I got their addresses and I figure Santa will be a little nicer to them and their siblings this year. Junior wants a scooter and I figure that’s a solid vehicle in Long Bay.

We loaded the van and headed out. I asked the driver to make a brief detour, to the Blue Diamond Plaza. I wanted to get a few more bags of coffee and Katie wanted another bottle of the Solarcaine with lanocain. I lucked out, she didn’t, as they were out of the powerful stuff. We also stopped at Mc Donald’s to get the kids a meal.

Checking in was not a hassle and we got a big surprise. Our airfare actually included the $27 per person departure tax, so suddenly I was not broke and had over $140 to spend on more junk. We stocked up on coffee and some other gift items.

Finally it was time to board our flight home. I was able to bring Courtney up to see the flight deck and we enjoyed a night time view of Norfolk and Washington D.C. There were a few more minor adventures on the way home and I paid $96.00 in parking fees but our Jamaica 2001 trip was over, with just memories lingering.