Jamaica: Montego Bay & Ocho Rios

After a full eight months of rotting away stateside without any opportunity to explore on an international level, I felt like my travel-tuned mind was growing soft from neglect.  There were several signs that I was in need of a tuneup: I failed as a vexillonaire to some country’s flags flying in downtown Chicago, and was also unable to name Chad’s capital in during team trivia.  This was just unacceptable.  I looked at my travel map and decided that a complete lack of Caribbean exploration merited an excursion.  Jamaica seemed like it would have a distinctive character and so the decision was made.  I must admit that as I write this, I’m nearly 4 months returned from the trip.  I’m sure that some details I often capture have been lost, but this steeping process will ensure that those most profound will be brought to light.

For this trip, I was able to lure friend Nick VanderHovel away from his Michigan life to come on down and try something different, and I certainly give him credit for booking a flight despite the lack of concrete details.  This is just how I tend to travel, and it can be far from what others are comfortable with.  Nick turned the reins over to me, with his only demand being ‘that we not get stabbed’.  Jamaica has one of the highest homicide rates in the world though, so there was only so much I could guarantee.

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Our adventure began at the Montego Bay airport where our separate flights came in on time.  With a little local currency in our pockets, we marched through the salvo of taxi drivers, and opted to go for a bit of a walk.  We weren’t going to be on as cheap a budget as I subjected myself to on other trips, but we were certainly going to avoid the obvious rorts.  And the walk wasn’t bad either: we grabbed some disgusting stout beers, traced along the shore, and found ourselves locals wanting to take advantage of us in no time at all.  In the end they did a bit, but I hadn’t fully acclimated to the Jamaican tourist environment and wasn’t quite on my normal guard.  It took me very little time to realize that similar to other countries, many people are disingenuous crapmongers, just looking to get their piece.  After thickening our skin, hardening our hearts, and honing our ripoff alarms, the rest of the trip carried on pretty well.  Here you can see the Montego Bay coastline, as well as the vacant husk of a Burger King.

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Our initial impressions were that this place was rough.  A handful of resorts dotted the shore, but the absolute lack of Montego Bay charm would make any extended stay here truly a disappointment.  After walking all the way to the taxi depot, escorted much of the way by some hucksters, we rode up to our pension.  I had been talking up the hostel atmosphere to Nick as a sort of oasis in places like these, but honestly, this one did not deliver.  We were relieved enough to at least see some fellow foreigners staying there, though it appeared all would be leaving the next day.  We unloaded our things and set out on a little walk.  We were both starving, and the first meal we ate was goat curry, which while bony was rich in flavor.  Nick was not of the same mind on the quality of the cuisine.  This area looked better from a distance.

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The rest of that day was spent getting ourselves established.  We needed to walk a fair distance to the hospital to make use of the ATM, exchange our US dollars at rates far better than those offered at the airport, and stop at the store for something more to eat.  Nick had no doubts about his shopping list.

IMG_3416This was about all the excitement to be had this day, except for a few drinks in the evening.  The hostel closed down and we were basically locked in there, with just one other guest.  At first she seemed normal, even interesting I might say, but as we listened further her presence became neigh unbearable.  I’ll first of all state that these feelings took a while to appear, but she did indeed become comic relief.  Imagine how much you would enjoy spending time with someone who talks constantly of being vegan (but takes no issue with fish), had to modify every single thing she orders, is cheap beyond belief (letting mere cents affect her decisions), talks of refusing to tip in the US, complains constantly about anything and is always argumentative, refuses to come in contact with cold water (including the patently un-cold ocean, neglects taking showers for days when the water wouldn’t get warm enough, is completely unappreciative of financial or physical assistance (and yet expecting of it), complains that despite her Jamaican descent everyone identifies her has a foreigner (as if the fanny pack she wore didn’t calcify that label), was intent on getting tanned (despite caking on a thick layer of SPF 55 ever 5 minutes), and takes offense at the numerous people asking why her face was looking white (which again, was attributed to the absurd amount of sunblock).  There is no vignette that can be painted to show just how we loathed this individual, but I thought it necessary to at least take a moment and make sure to capture the ire that emerged from our time together.  The one nice thing about her was a willingness to share, that is all I’ll give her.

Before developing this knowledge of her nature, we agreed to go to the beach together.  She wanted to go to a local spot which sounded good to us – why pay to hang out with the people I had just gotten away from?  It was a little bit overcast, but still plenty sunny enough to give us a healthy dose of color.  Nick had a tan line by the time we got there beach.  I was the only one to swim, and the water was fantastic.  A while later we returned to the hostel where some locals were gathering to listen to music and play dominoes.  I fancy myself a sporting man, and despite their challenge that we wouldn’t stand a chance, managed to take the first few rounds.  It was a bit different from the Mexican Train that I’m used to, but wasn’t too confusing.  Nick was not taking my superiority in stride.

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The next morning, we cleaned up our mess, took a last shower, and then ‘checked out’.  There were no employees, so this just meant leaving.  Nick had allegedly promised to carry the scourge’s bag, well before he realized how heavy it was, or how far we would be going.  We were all sweat bombs by the time we arrived to the minibus depot.  We located a ride going to Ocho Rios, and ended up paying a couple extra dollars to avoid shoving another sweaty, disgusting body in that cramped back seat with us.  She would go on to neither pay Nick[el]back, or even thank him for hauling the suitcase all the way there, which really marked the beginning of the end of our patience with her.  Yeah, we got some color.

IMG_3437smallThe merits of travelling in a smaller country were quickly obvious as it only took an hour or so to get to our next destination, quite unlike the 40 hour bus Neil and I took in Argentina.  The road traced the ocean and offered some lovely views of cerulean waters, beaches, palms, and the occasional blight.  We were overjoyed to have MoBay behind us, because it offered so little..

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We arrived and fought through the ‘generosity’ of people willing to help (for tips, of course), and eventually made our way to our next hostel.  We both breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that it was actually a nice place.  This place was so much more like what I had been describing to Nick: things were nice, it was a bit more developed, the hostel was located on the beach, had open air rooftop bar, decent accommodations and, most importantly, other people with whom to mingle.  Once checked in, the first order of business was to find food.  My travel companion was not loving the local cuisine so far, and fair enough goat isn’t for everyone, but we decided that some of Jamaican’s signature Jerk Chicken could perhaps turn his heart.  Right we were, this was delicious.

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Back at the hostel we started to formulate a plan.  As always, this trip was being planned just a day or two at a time, but with a lot more people to gather intel from, we came up with a good idea of how to spend our remaining days.  One of the tourist traps here is Dunn’s River Falls, not that it’s a bad spot, but everyone described it as over hyped.  They unanimously suggested that we get ourselves over to the Blue Hole instead, since it offered all the same atmosphere as Dunn’s, but without all the other tourists, and a great deal more adventure.  We banded together with some others, hopped in a van, and took off.  We were able to leave ‘her’ behind, as she was defeated by the ‘cold water’ and ‘expensive’ cab.  I assure you, both were extremely reasonable.  The ride took us up into the jungle a bit before we reached a clearing with some locals ready to take care of us.  For about 10 USD each we had an afternoon filled with excitement, our own personal guide, and plenty of good memories.  This was the first basin we came to, and it was was a perfect remedy for the heat and humidity.  I was ever the acrobat.

IMG_3464After a bit of merriment around the rope swings, our guide took us further up the river, stopping at all the good spots along the way.  We were clearly down for anything, so he made sure we got the full tour.  This included jumping off a high ledge out from the jungle foliage and into a pool far below.  I went for it with little hesitation.  I should add that our guide was clearly just having a great time with us, and the number of times I heard him say ‘yaa maaaan’ was unbelievable.  He gave us a little Patois performance as well.

Some other stops included more rope swings, a waterfall we were able to run down and spelunk behind, and plenty more places from which to jump.  Our guide had clearly done this before and at one point climbed a tree to reach branches high above a pool.  Leaping from the branch he was standing on, he grabbed a smaller one, built momentum by swinging, and then did a perfect flip and dive into the pool far below.  We were all very impressed, though, I was indeed disappointed when they wouldn’t let me try…I guess the last white guy to attempt it punctured his eardrum…bush league.  While this photo doesn’t particularly exhibit the beauty of the spot, it was a trip favorite and needed to make an appearance in my write-up.

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We working our way back to the start, and relaxed a bit while the afternoon passed us by.  Our guide, deciding that he was hungry, eyed a few breadfruit hanging from a tree high above.  Being the beast that he was, simply bear-climbed a tree to knock a few of them down.  These green balls are not what one would generally consider food at first glance, but he assured us it was a true Jamaican dish.  To have it freshly harvested and cooked before us made for a truly authentic experience.  These are cooked by tossing them into a fire until they’ve taken on a deep carcinogenic black.  Once cool enough to handle, the char is cut off, giant pit removed, and then the yellow flesh portioned out in banana leaves.  It had a dense, spongy consistency with just a hint of sweetness.  It wasn’t something that I needed to eat a great deal of, but it wasn’t bad either.IMG_3544 IMG_3546 IMG_3547 IMG_3551

That evening, back at our hostel, we spent much of the night on the roof with the other guests.  It was good fun listening to music, enjoying some of the local rum, and also the comfortable temperatures.  As the night wore on people retired to bed, and soon it was just us two and a security guard.  We were really feeling the pangs of hunger, and with KFC tempting us from just across the street we had no other option.  We indulged in 30 dollars worth of glorious fried chicken, which we devoured with help of our new-found security guard pal.  The bunk room was too hot for comfortable sleeping though, so I relocated to an outdoor hammock, and Nick to a nearby picnic table.

IMG_3458Before leaving this town, we checked out a nice Indian restaurant.  I know it would make sense to eat more local food during our relatively short stay, but this was what sounded good.  We ate just as the restaurant opened and were the only two in there, and the food was great.  There was some sticker shock, at least compared to the prices of the other food available, but we were awash in gaiety.  After dinner we packed up, begrudgingly exchanged contact details with the girl, and departed on the next stage of our trip.
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