Anthropological observations on the Land of Wood and Water from writer (and Jamaican radio-obsessive) Jon Kirby.
JAMAICA – If you're anything like me, you forgot to call your bank before you left the country. So you probably only have one chance to hit the ATM, because I'm pretty sure there's a siren that goes off in most responsible banking institutions when your card makes a withdrawal at the Kingston Airport. You've probably got some USD on you as well, and that's good. People love the USD because it's stable and it is everywhere you want to be.
Whether it's due to abundant sun or the desire to travel incognito, the majority of Jamaican motorists black their windows out with the strongest tints available at market. Combined with the fact that they drive on the British side, I routinely approach my first cab like I would back home, open the door, and find a friendly Jamaican man sitting behind a steering wheel where there would ordinarily be a passenger seat. Politely, I am directed to the opposite side of the vehicle.
If you are traveling any distance of note in Jamaica, you'll most likely be on A1. This is like the Beltway of Jamaica, and it ranges from a four-lane highway to totally mental Bangladeshi mountainside passageways. It can be beautiful and time-consuming and sporadically nauseating. It can also be fun and give you a decent swath of time to listen to Irie FM or Cool FM. Jamaican air horn is correct!
Where will you be staying? If you were our parents, you'd be staying wherever the travel agent at AAA suggested based on feedback provided by other people's parents. But what you should probably do is stay in a house that enterprising Jamaicans open up to vacationers. Because when you're successful and you live in paradise, isn't every home a vacation home?
Such is the case with Your Jamaican Villas, a collection of private family homes owned by Sandals chairman (and well-regarded White Guy) Gordon "Butch" Stewart. It's the kind of place people who own Caribbean resorts like to stay when on vacation. Or at least land their helicopter to load up on coconut water before returning to the skies. There are three indulgent manors and helipads, all of them maintained with the hope that you and your friends will pony up to crash en masse. The lovely staff will greet you each morning with a cordial, "Good morning, sir," no matter how shirtless you are when you yell "WHA' GWON MI BREDREN!" from across the courtyard.
I stayed in a two-story brick guesthouse that sits snuggly beside an open-air main quarters, a neo-colonial quartet of sprawling bedrooms connected by a living room and dining areas. The perfect amount of breeze passes through the property carrying you right onto the beach — your own secluded bay, shaded by enormous trees, punctuated by a spacious gazebo at the Villa's furthest boundary. Whether you need a jumping-off point for a skinny dip or a spot to charge your iPhone, this man-made peninsula provides both.
We tend to paint in broad strokes when it comes to the Caribbean, but the atmosphere and attitude in Jamaica can differ vastly depending on where you stay and what you do. I know gaggles of Canadians who fly into Kingston to stay with rich uncles and party in the capital city for nights at a time. Likewise, I know Midwestern families who fly into Montego Bay with their young children to build white sandcastles and catch up on their reading. Personally, I first came to Jamaica as a Spring Breaker looking for vegetarian food.
Jamaica's perpetual growing season, compounded by economic factors and then multiplied by its Rastafarian population, equals abundant restaurants and food stands for those wishing to live off the land.
Ackee is the national "fruit" of Jamaica. (Like, how a tomato is a fruit. Give it a rest, botanists.) I don't have any idea why it is not grown in the United States, at least for the vegans among us who accept tofu scramble as a singular breakfast alternative. Lazier grocers might compare ackee to scrambled eggs, but it is actually a flavorful, textural odyssey that is often prepared with saltfish (dried cod) and cooked with onions, peppers, or tomatoes. It's often served with bammy cakes, a starchy, dense cassava cake that has been fried. The liquid refuse can be used to starch clothes, FYI.
You should eat a ton of fruit. And buy orange juice sold in reclaimed wine bottles. Those oranges were probably picked today, grown without pesticides, and pummeled with sunlight and frequent rain. The bananas, having not spent a month on a boat or on an 18-wheeler, or in a warehouse, taste like fruit, not seasoned wood pulp.
On our last night at the Villas, I asked Villas manager Rocky if he could identify the source of the loud music wafting across the otherwise quiet bay. "That's the Sailor Bar, sir." Discovery Bay is essentially a fishing village and most of the bars are really glorified gazebos equipped with coolers and boom boxes. I asked what the scene was like across the way. "It's a strip club, sir." Could there be anything shadier than a Jamaican strip club? "No sir, it's quite relaxed; the girls dance, socialize with the customers, there's a deejay — would you like to go?" Couldn't we just paddle board across the bay, sort of drunk, a quarter past midnight? "I can't let you do that, sir." Good. Perhaps the business of doing whatever you want benefits from responsible accountants now and then.