Blue Mountain Peak in Jamacia (2004)
I’m finally here in Jamaica and am working at overcoming my fear of this place. There is far more poverty than I had expected, Jamaica is a third world country. Everyone here drives like glue huffing maniacs. The people seem to be reasonably friendly, although most of them are preoccupied with the coming hurricane. Ivan is scheduled to whack the center of the island tonight at midnight. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that 240Kph winds will soon be destroying most of the shantytowns in this country. Right now it’s so quiet and peaceful. I’m here by the pool villa and the peepers are unusually noisy. I keep forgetting why I’m here, I don’t feel safe and I want to feel safe. Jamaica has the highest murder rate per capita of any country. Everyone tells me not to go to Kingston, but Kingston has been evacuated. Where have all the gang members in Kingston gone to? Here in Negril perhaps? Negril is nice, it’s on the West coast. It’s a tourist town with everything but the tourists. Everyone here expects a tip and my rental car has no reverse, or at least it takes me 5 minutes of messing with it to get reverse to work. I should have kept my reservation with Hertz. I don’t know what I was doing trying to save $60. The hotel was also $60, which is too much. I should have paid with a credit card though and I choose to pay with cash. Soon all the power in the island will be down. There is so much poverty here I can sense a criminal element here in Jamaica not far beneath the surface. That brings up fear for me. It’s funny how I know so many drug dealers and violent people and I don’t really fear them, but then when I go to another country that is foreign I do.
I met a guy from Manhattan named Ora. He is a large 6′ black man who has learned a pretty good Jamaican accent. We wandered into the bad sections of town together and got hassled by countless locals. The entire country is on the verge of rioting. You can feel it in the air. All the buildings are boarded up and everyone is hiding out and waiting for something to happen. It seems like looting and rioting is inevitable. It’s more of a question of when. I don’t think the insurance on the car is protected from rioting or getting washed away in the ocean. I’m in a 70 room hotel owned by a particularly outspoken Jamaican woman named Gloria. There is a movie coming out about her ad she gave Ora a free book, but not me. I’m beginning to feel singled out. I read a lot of the book and I’m starting to get a better idea of what its like to be a Jamaican. It’s a really hard life, no wonder these people are trying to rip me off at every opportunity. As far as they’re concerned they deserve what I got because I’m rich and they are poor. The strange part is that in a way they are right and justified in their contempt. I am rich compared to most of them. I make more money in a day than most of these people make in a year. Don’t they deserve it? Sometime I really don’t know.
I’ve been stranded in a hotel for 2 days while the Hurricane does its thing. I’ve made lots of other friends as I often do in Hostels in other countries. Other refugee travelers like Ora from NYC who has been here for a week and is a large black man who has learned the language so well that 50% of the time he gets the local price which is about 1/5 of the tourist price. It gets to be downright annoying when you want to buy a watermelon and the hustler tries to charge you $500 for it, about 10 US Dollars. The last watermelon I bought in the states was $2 and it was huge. I guess this guy figured his melon was special seeing as how it had survived hurricane Ivan. You cannot rely on these people and the minute you need them for anything you’re basically screwed. There is so much racism here it is staggering. When you are waiting in line several black people will walk right up and budge in line in front of you and the counter person will act like you’re not even there. It’s amazing how blatant the racism is and I am much more sympathetic to the plight of the black man living in America.
These street hustlers are an interesting breed. Scamming money from tourists seems to be a national pastime. It would not surprise me in the least if they held secret competitions to see who could get the most money from the tourists. I lost about $300 Jamaican dollars of my own before I wised up. The conversation starts something like this. Hustler throws hands up to the sky and yells “Hey” at the top of his lungs. Even if you’re speeding by at 30 MPH these guys do this expecting that you will stop so you can get hustled. If you slow down or make eye contact then they will try to shake your hand and hold onto it for a long time. It is wiser to hold your fist out and say “Respect” so they can punch it. I’m not sure why, maybe you’re asking for respect, you sure as heck should not expect to get any. Then they will ask you your name and ask where you are from. Once you do that then you usually get one of two lines, the beggar or the dealer. The Dealer will try to sell you Ganga, Coke, Mushrooms, Women or whatever. They will keep asking you what you need and insist that everybody needs something. The best come back we have found to the dealer is to try to sell HIM some Ganja. Basically everyone on this island smokes ganja so if you try to deal drugs to them they will drift away realizing that their efforts are totally wasted on you. If they are a beggar then the best thing to do is to start asking them for money. There is a bunch of different stories that start like
1) I am airport security
2) I am the security at your hotel
3) I am the guy you got your rental car from (even if you do not have a rental car)
Most Jamacians assume that white people can’t tell black people apart and I think most of them are right. Every possible opportunity they try to rip off foreigners, it a national pastime here. The funniest thing is asking for price. Today some people I was with asked “How much for the rice?” and the woman responded “$150 for a small” so we asked “how much for a Medium” To which she replied ” $120 Jamaican”. I just snickered to myself and said out loud “I think you should stick with the medium.” Negril was hit pretty bad by the hurricane which is surprising since for all intents and purposes the hurricane missed Jamaica entirely. Most of the people here live in tin shacks so I dread to thin about what would happen if the hurricane really hit. Even with it missing the island about 10% of the electric poles are broken, all the billboards are blown down and many trees and lampposts have fallen into the road. In Ocho Rios I went Para sailing behind a motor boat. It was pretty fun and just a little bit scary, mostly because of the poor condition of the rope and the fact that they could not seem to get the winch working. I still think that skydiving and kite boarding is more fun, but it was an interesting experience to be sure. Then I went snorkeling in the reefs. I followed a Manta Ray for a long time and saw beautiful sea cucumbers and Long-nosed Gars. I saw starfish, urchins, and these cool little blue fish with yellow eyes that would peck at your finger if you held it out. I saw several eels and a huge sea snake that was about 4 feet long. The crabs here sit in the middle of the road and seem to be attracted by the headlights. They are huge, sometimes over 6 inches across and its funny to see them in the street. We saw about 20 on the drive home last night from Ocho Rios. It looks like they are playing a deadly game of chicken with the passing cars. We went to the strip club last night, mostly because I had never been to such an establishment. I have gotten to be really stingy with my money, mostly because there is so much pressure and so many people who seem to be set on trying to separate me from my money. You could not have a more polar opposite from the Burning Man festival. At BM everything was free and people did not even want to think about money while they were there. Here in Jamaica everything is about money, big tourist money. You have to fight tooth and nail to get any kind of fair price on anything here. Jamaicans consider you to be a guest in their country, which explains why they feel, so justified in begging money from you for breathing their air and taking up their space.
The crazy Norwegian and I have finally left Mo Bay and are now on a trek around the country. We went to Mayfield falls yesterday and it was quite beautiful. The river was running very high so we didn’t get to check out the underwater caves and the water was too high to climb up the waterfalls to the top, but it was still quite scenic class IV waterfalls for several miles with poorly maintained mud trails with bamboo handrails. The son of the guy who owned the property (or he said he was the so, who knows) was very informative and helpful. He talked all about the tours and the companies and how much they had to pay to use the land. It quickly became clear that the Jamaicans have very few scruples and are always interested in making money. We are in Black River now and we’re going to go out and try to find some alligators. All the hotels are closed and no one has electricity or water. That’s OK with us because we brought water and food, but the south side of the island seemed to get hit a lot worse than the north side. There is an old ship that is huge that is stranded on the beach here. It looks pretty cool.
Felix and I have traveled across about 1/2 of the island now and we are on the South Coast in Alligator Pond. Earlier today we were going to take a river ride on the Black river to look at the alligators, but they wanted $900 Jamaican for each of us. I try to weigh everything in Jamaica against the price of a village prostitute which is about $1000 Jamaican. The Alligator tour would have had to be really good to be worth $900 Jamaican. The people hosting the tour were pretty rude and didn’t seem to really care if I went on the tour or not. We were hoping to see alligators in Alligator Pond but all we found is lots of laborers and lots of buildings with no roofs. Felix and I are starting to get on each other’s nerves, we’ve been hanging out for a week and we bicker like a dysfunctional marriage. In this joint in Alligator Bay they opened a large freezer and the thing was packed full of fish. I had to pick out a fish to get cooked up and wander through the construction area. They cooked the fish up and for about $12 US I had the best meal I have eaten yet in Jamaica. On the way to Alligator Bay we had to drive through water that was so deep it was going up onto the windshield. I have no Idea at all how the Car kept going since for all intents and purposes the engine was totally underwater. The car was jerking back and forth like it was going to stall. There was 2 kids padding a boat down the road and we made such big waves going 5 mph that their boat almost flipped. The water was just below the side windows and the whole rental car flooded. We stopped and opened the doors and let the water pour out. I thought it was one of the weirdest experiences in my life and one for the rental car abuse records. At least it is clean now. We are in a city named Mandeville, which is the biggest non-coastal city. We stayed in a big old castle that is one of the worst and cheapest places we have stayed, about $7 American a night. I have squatted in abandoned buildings that are nicer than this place, and the lack of electricity doesn’t help either. So many hotels are shut down from the Hurricane I am thankful when we can find a place to stay. Two nights ago we had to beg the Guest House to let us stay, they were the only ones in town that had anyone at it, all the other ones were abandoned. Our rental car no longer starts properly so we have resorted to push starting it. This is the worst rental car I’ve ever had, the back bumper is 1/2 ripped off now, the rear tires both leak air, it doesn’t start and I can only get it into reverse about 20% of the time. Hard to believe I am paying more for this piece of crap than I am spending to eat and house here combined. I was off-roading and I hit a rock pretty hard and dented the underside of the car. The roads here are unbelievably bad. The local villagers are the ones that do the maintenance and they are not paid that well, or at all for that matter. We caught a ride in the back of a Land Rover up to a couple of miles from the top. The Land Rover was amazing. Instead of a gas tank the guy had a gallon jug full of Gas with a little hose coming out of it. The reserve tank was a second gallon jug in the back, which kept falling over. The road was so rutted and steep and intense that I thought at any minute we would go careening over the edge. There was a ‘road construction’ crew which basically consisted with about 20 of the local villagers smoking ganga and watching one or two guys work. There was a huge landslide and a gigantic tree was sitting right in the middle of the road. The mountains are beautiful and quiet, we are up in the jungle and you can hear many of the birds and such.
Now I’m sitting in a small picnic Gazebo 1/2 way up to the highest Peak in Jamaica. The walk looks to be about 7 miles each way, but it took us 5 hrs to get to the top because every 50 ft there was a downed tree in the trail that you have to weasel around. The scenery is tremendous here however our tour guide is quite ill-mannered and bad-tempered. About a mile from the top he gave up and said he was going back. We said fine and kept hiking. He ended up following us to the top and asking us for some money before he headed back down. People here are preoccupied with getting tourist’s dollars. If they spend 5% of the amount of effort they spend smoking Ganja and trying to scam tourists and put that energy to good use they could easily make a ton of money. Here I guess it’s better to be lazy and get it from the tourists. It seemed Ironic that our guide could not make it to the top, probably a scam to try to get more money. Frankly I don’t think we even needed a guide, the trails are wide and obvious and very clearly marked. The clouds came in just before we got to the top so we never got the spectacular 360-degree view but we did get some pretty good views farther down. The rain is pouring now and has been for the last hour. I did not bring my raincoat and am walking with no shirt and a pair of swim trunks. It’s a sorry sight to behold. It is quite cold, the coldest I have felt here in Jamaica, probably 50 and the rain does not help.
There I was careening down the mountain totally out of control at over 30 miles per hour. I tried desperately to grab trees or vines, but everything I tried to grab quickly was yanked out of my hands. Vines kept wrapping around my neck and jerking my head back so hard I thought my neck would break. Everything in my body was sending pain messages to my brain at once and the brain was overloaded. I had slid down over 200 yards in less than 30 seconds and I had no way to stop. I managed to wrap my arm around a small tree and it was ripped out of my arm immediately. The situation was dire as I rapidly approached a 60-foot vertical drop off. How the hell did I get myself into this situation anyway? A crazy Norwegian named Felix and I had headed up to the John Crow Blue Mountain range and were hiking to the highest peak in Jamaica. We had hired a guide who had turned out to be utterly useless. In fact he was worse than useless he was a nuisance. Always asking for money, he was too lazy to even hike to the top. He finally did follow us to the top but only to beg for money. I will be glad to be rid of him, most dogs I have met are better behaved and have more self-respect than these Jamaican hustlers. Felix had blazed on ahead because there was a bad rainstorm. I tried to keep up but he was quickly out of sight and sound range. Back to careening down the mountain on my ass… I was trying to press my backpack into the hill to keep my ass off the ground and using my feet to try to stop. I finally hit a tree with one foot and managed to absorb the shock with my body. I lay there for several minutes trying to collect myself and checking for any major bleeding and broken bones. I was in so much pain that my brain pain center shut down and the adrenaline kicked in. There was garbage all over that I had been collecting and my backpack had ripped open and my stuff was all over the hillside. I was covered head to toe in mud and some of the cuts were bleeding, but nothing was deeper than about 1/4 inch, just lot of road rash. I climbed down 10 feet carefully and looked over the edge. There was a 60+ foot drop that I almost certainly would have died if I had fallen down. I started the climb back up. It took me over 2 hours to climb out of that gorge, I cried for help but by then Felix was already at the lodge. If any of my limbs had been broken I do not think I would have been able to climb out. It was unbelievably steep and the ground was totally unstable. Only the trees were good for climbing on and many of the trees were too weak to hold my weight. After climbing out I made it back to the lodge and what should I find but lo and behold the good for nothing guide wandering around aimlessly begging for more money so he could go drinking. I decided to let Felix deal with him; I didn’t have any more space for this guy. I think back to the accident and there was so many mistakes I made, I never should have let Felix go on ahead. The rain was so cold I was starting to shiver and run and the trail was very unsafe for running. I never should have let the tour guide leave early, but most of all I never should have tried to take a shortcut all alone in unfamiliar jungle. I have learned my lesson 3 times over. It was the most frightening experience in my life. If there had been any rocks that did not give way or trunks sticking out I easily could have gotten cut to the bone and I really should have broken my arms trying to grab these trees as I slid by. I consider myself very luck to be alive and all in one piece. Everything on my body hurts and I have scrapes over much of my body.
Felix and I have driven all day and are now back safe and sound at the Hotel Gloriana. Getting here was a chore. We parked our car in some guys yard while we were hiking in the mountains and when we got back to it there was a flat tire. I got to changing it right away, then I got a bunch of change, about $130 to pay the man who watched the car. He refused it and insisted on paying him $500. At this point I was so pist off I was ready to ram the rental car through the gate and start running down these clueless Jamaicans. I told Felix to handle it and he did so beautifully. He told Camile, our worse than useless tour guide from heell that he would pay this other man $800 that was owed to him to get the car out and that we didn’t want any trouble. We had already threatened to turn this kid into the police and the tourist board and he was so stupid he just didn’t get it. Camile ended up taking the $800, paying the parking hustler guy $100 and he let us take the car out. The worst part of these bad men is that they would rather loose money than to help out a white man or being perceived as being a white lover. So many times you try to negotiate with these people they would rather not sell you whatever good or service you want just because you are white. A country of criminals and thieves with 5% having some small semblance of integrity. It really makes me appreciate the states a lot more. People generally charge a fair price with no negotiating and no separate prices for blacks and whites. These people are living in reverse racism and the worst part is that they don’t see the negative impact on their lives and their economy. It’s really very sad. There is a big chunk missing out of the side of the car and there is a flat tire. Tomorrow morning we have to get the tire to hold air so I don’t get charged and we have to bondo and spray paint the body of the car. I’m hoping they don’t notice, I’m angry because I’ve already dumped a bunch of money into trying to get this car to work and the last think I want to do is spend even more money and time when it’s not even worth the $460 I’m paying to rent it for 10 days. Next time I’m renting a small SUV from Hertz and to hell with the cost. It’s the morning of my departure and I went out to the rental car and the spare was flat. I was not even a little bit surprised. Without missing a beat I put on the other flat tire, filled it with fix a flat then drove to the gas station and filled both with air. God help the next person that rents this car, it’s a disaster held together with spit.
I’m at the airport now, the big question is how many Jamaicans does it take to give correct change? Took 3 just now and they couldn’t get it right even on the 4th try. They gave me $500 too much. I finally took the right amount out of the wad of money that they gave me and gave the rest of it back shaking my head. These Jamaicans are really bad with money, or actually pretty much with everything. I look forward to getting back to the states where everyone I deal with is not in some kind of purple haze. I’m waiting for it to start raining, it usually does after noon around here. We need the rain to help cover up the bad paint job. Felix and I worked hard this morning and we did a good job of covering up the underside, but the stuff on the side was much tougher. The spray paint does not have a sheen like the clear coat does, the rain kind of hides it but without the car being wet its pretty obvious. Lets hope it rains before 1:30 today.
The guy did not notice the repairs and the escape back to NY was uneventful. When I got to my car it had a flat tire. I did not even skip a beat. It was my 3rd flat tire in 3 days, and at least my car was still there and wasn’t trashed. It feels good to be home.