BY CHRISTOPHER HARALL
No other place so embodies the idea of an earthly paradise than Jamaica. And no other place in Jamaica so epitomizes the fleetingness of that fantasy than Negril. This picture perfect town has it all, and it’s not just surf and turf.
I’m standing ankle-deep in a puddle in the middle of a washed out road. One of the brief and refreshing rain showers oft-praised as a relief from the afternoon heat, arrived early this morning and refuses to leave. At breakfast, I watched the storm advance, roiling the sea and turning the sky to a dull New England gray. My feet are now lost beneath the muddy water, and tremendous raindrops soak me to my spleen. I wear only a pair of red swim trunks, which I haven’t taken off for several days. I think, if nothing else, that thhe rain might freshen them up a bit. In my hand is a soaked wad of Jamaican dollars. Soon joining me in the puddle is an old man wielding a machete. He speaks quickly, alternating between garbled English and Jamaican Patois, and wildly waves his blade in the direction of the wooden huts that line the road. He knows I’m a man in need of something. Why else would I be out here in the rain? “Red Stripe please,” I say. He hesitates.
“Red Stripe,” I repeat too loudly. “Three,” I add, holding up the same number of fingers. I place the money in his outstretched hand. He nods to indicate that we’re in business and then walks off down a narrow dirt alley.
“Too much of de white rum for him,” says a woman seated in the dim confines of one of the huts. “It make him mad.”
Time is now measured in units of “soon come”; there’s no need to worry about that which will certainly arrive.
“Mad,” I repeat, and then add, “crazy?” The woman smiles a big infectious smile. And as I wait in the puddle, a grin spreading across my face, it occurs to me that my current state might be what people call being ‘in the moment.’
“Soon come,” says the woman after several minutes pass.
“Soon come,” I repeat, perfectly content to wait indefinitely. It’s taken several days to attain this carefree state. Several days to lower my urban defense system. Several days to reach a plane of consciousness where I am unalarmed by — and gladly hand money to — a man waving a machete. I am, it seems, happily present, without apprehension, fear or judging from my appearance, ego. I’ve stopped wearing a watch. Time is now measured in units of “soon come”; there’s no need to worry about that which will certainly arrive. Sure enough my madman returns. I thank him extravagantly and refuse my change, and as the drenched-but-proud owner of three sweating bottles of beer I realize that, rain or no, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
Perhaps visitors to Negril in the sixties and seventies felt the same way after they too had been here for a few days. Perhaps it’s why many of them stayed for weeks and months and why others built homes and never left. Located on the western tip of Jamaica, the Negril of today is known for its narrow crescent of gently curving beach, which until fairly recently, and despite its obvious appeal, went mostly untracked. Thirty or so years ago this international hotspot was just a remote fishing village called Red Ground, built atop a hill overlooking a swamp known as the Great Morass. While places like Montego Bay and Ocho Rios catered to a mounting number of mainstream tourists, Negril existed in a peaceful state of obscurity and the tourist, as we currently know him, rarely ventured there.
“It was a total escape. Some stayed for a month, some six months. Some like us came and never left.”
Mark Conklin, owner of Banana Shout, a group of villas nestled in the cliffs of Negril’s West End, came to Jamaica at a time when the United States was adrift amidst the tension and political unrest of the Vietnam War — a time ripe for escape. Negril proved to be the perfect place to put down new roots. He remembers his first years in Negril and has recorded those memories in a novel, Why Bananas Shout. As much about his past as the Island’s, the work describes a past with no electricity and no running water; when the “road” was two ruts worn into the hillside by a truck that brought kerosene to light the lighthouse; and only the occasional structure stood where the jungle-like growth was kept at bay by the ceaseless swinging of machetes.
“People came here from all over the world,” Mark recalls. “Mostly young backpackers, they’d show up with a sleeping bag and for a couple of bucks a night they’d crash on the floor of a Jamaican’s home, eat meals with the family, play with their kids. It was a different life altogether. It was a total escape. Some stayed for a month, some six months. Some like us came and never left.”
Word of this hidden paradise spread, and soon people flew in from every continent. Rock stars, celebrities, rich kids, anyone with a little money and free time came to join these pioneering hippies, kick back in paradise, groove with the Jamaicans; smoke, swallow or snort their preference; watch the sun go down and forget about the outside world for a while.
On any given day Mick Jagger or Keith Richards might be seen strutting around Rick’s Cafe, a cliffside bar made notorious by its clientele of drug smugglers and celebrities. Mark recalls one instance when he was swinging in the hammock on his porch and he heard “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan drifting through the thick foliage. He wondered how the music could be so clear coming from what he assumed was the faraway stereo of his neighbor. Following the music to its source, he came upon a clearing where, dressed in a purple robe, guitar in hand, sat Donovan himself.
As a result of its increasing popularity, the tourism industry in Negril exploded. Some say the consequences were devastating. Others will argue the opposite, but all agree that the area was forever changed. Conklin, now in his later years, grayer and heavier than his younger and more handsome self in the Polaroid he’s showing me was swept up in the shock wave.
“The tourism thing in Negril happened overnight. Back then we never even thought about making money at this. I had built a small bungalow on the land I owned and one day some young guys showed up at my door and said, “Hey, can we rent this place?” So I moved out, back into my lean-to until I could build another place. The next thing I knew I was running a hotel.”
By comparison, Mark’s Cliffside Resort developed slowly (even today it consists of only a handful of bungalows), whereas down on the beach, property was snapped up at ever-increasing rates and buildings went from foundation to fully operative in a matter of weeks. Haste, lack of planning, the absence of regulation, and a seemingly endless line of tourists resulted in the Negril that exists today. No less than 70 resorts, inns, restaurants, and clubs now line the beach, with another forty or so on or near the cliffs along South Negril Point. Like so many other places before it, this paradise was paved overnight, and the transformation of a tiny self-sufficient patch of the tropics into another tourist Mecca was complete.
A RIDE IN THE COUNTRY SIDE
I’ve hired a taxi for the day to take me inland away from the crush of tourists. The despair I’ve begun to feel from the sight of too much sunburned flesh and the chainsaw scream of jet skis is brought to a head by the girlish hooting of a drunk accountant as he parachutes into the ocean before the motorboat yanks him skyward again.
My driver, McGee, takes us out of town headed southeast on the narrow and pitted A2. We speed through towns with names that echo Jamaica’s history. Sheffield, Little London and Savanna-La-Mar recall a legacy forged when the British took control of the island from the Spanish in 1655. The center of Sav-La-Mar, as McGee says it, teems with children dressed in perfectly pressed school uniforms. Reggae or house music booms from huge amplifiers stacked four high under a corrugated roof, and the road is lined with food stands offering a variety of fruits, jerk chicken, fried fish, and patties. We dodge oncoming cars and the wayward goat or chicken until the town gives way to Jamaica’s lush landscape.
Switchbacks zigzag up the steep hills into a landscape dominated by verdant jungle. It is cooler and drier here and the pace more relaxed. This is the Jamaica I came to see, the Jamaica everyone should see.
Turning onto a pitted one-lane road, we are hemmed in by eight-foot stalks of sugar cane. Intermittently, small clearings appear where a house has been built and a vegetable garden laid out. The road rises, taking us out of the low-lying fields. Switchbacks zigzag up the steep hills into a landscape dominated by verdant jungle. It is cooler and drier here and the pace more relaxed. This is the Jamaica I came to see, the Jamaica everyone should see. The people along the road wave or call out as we whiz by. “Hey, whitey,” some say as a matter of fact. McGee says to me, “Dey say, ‘hey, whitey,’ you say back, ‘hey, blackie.'” “Political correctness” has thankfully not arrived in Jamaica and such an exchange, I sense, is free of malice; we are, after all, referring only to our color.
A variety of trees, their branches laden with fruit, grow on the hillside. Coconuts, mangoes, breadfruit, star apples, bananas, soursop and papaya flourish. McGee pulls over and points to a tree bearing a pear-shaped fruit. “Dis is ackee,” he says, pointing out a ripe one. It is bright red and the lobes have begun to split at the bottom, spreading like a flower. “Dis is very good, very tasty,” he says. “You cook it and it’s like scrambled eggs, you have it with salt fish and dumplings for breakfast.” All morning McGee stops the car to share his knowledge of the native plants and explain how each can be prepared and eaten. During the eighties he cooked in his own restaurant. A thin, long-limbed man in his fifties with short, graying hair and a deliberate, graceful way of moving, McGee was born just fifteen miles outside “Mo Bay” as Montego Bay is more commonly called. He attended school and at seventeen took a job with a security company before moving to Negril where he opened his restaurant. “I cooked everything,” he says. “All styles, Jamaican dishes, Chinese, some Italian, a little of everything, mon. I did it all.” When the building he rented changed hands, he stopped leasing and closed up shop. Now he works for a hotel in the West End and makes extra money showing people around Negril and other parts of western Jamaica.
After stopping at Mayfield Falls, where I am led by guides up a steep mountainside through a series of cool waterfalls and pools, we are back in downtown Negril. McGee points out where buildings long demolished once stood at a time when travelers wandered in on foot or in the back of a farmer’s cart. I can see him reconstructing the scene in his mind’s eye. “Was it better then?” I ask him, though I know the answer. He hesistates as one who’s not given to moments of nostalgia might and then says slowly, “Ya mon, ya.” And you know it was.
DIRTY BANANAS AND DIRTY OLD MEN
Back at the hotel, I’m slaking my thirst, alternating between bottles of Red Stripe and rum-based Dirty Bananas; I assure myself that the blended fruit daiquiries are filled with enough nutrients to serve as dinner. There are some golden-haired kids at the bar, modern hippies. One’s had her hair braided, and her booyfriend is so sunburned it’s all I can do to keep from slapping him on the back. At a table in the middle of the dining room is a group of Europeans. They’ve dressed for dinner and make me somewhat ashamed of my reeking swimsuit and salt-caked hair. Adjacent to them is a loud group of tourists from somewhere far below the Mason-Dixon line. I begrudge them their accent and their happy camaraderie even more. I’m beginning to feel like pre-Even Adam — a bit lonesome in Paradise.
Between stifled fits of giggling, the golden hairs talk about smoking some more Alaskan bud and going down the road to meet up with the owner of Xtabi, another cliffside resort. I introduce myself, explain that I want to talk to this same fellow about the Negril of old, and, bound together by a common purpose, we’re on our way. Lonesome Journalist is happy to have some company and they’re over joyed, it would seem, to have someone in charge of at least fifty percent of his faculties. Along the road to Xtabi, we stop at a place named Three Dives and eat jerk chicken with rice and beans smothered in spicy granny sauce. Our food is cooked on a barbecue constructed from a fifty-gallon drum cut in half lengthwise and hinged at the back. Our table is a discarded wooden spool turned on its side just feet from the cliff’s edge. We eat to the setting sun and cool our palettes with more Red Stripe. The golden hairs are peaking on their Alaska and are reluctant to move. I take the opportunity to talk to a woman seated nearby. She is knitting a cotton hat in Jamaica’s national colors: black thread for the people, green for the land and gold for the sun. The task is second nature to her and her hands move quickly.
“Where did you learn to do that?” I ask.
“From watching my mother,” she answers before agreeing to pose for a picture. Slightly embarrassed, she lowers her face to her work but suddenly looks up wearing a shy smile that is so warm I almost forget to take the photo. Her name is Paula. Her boyfriend’s family collectively owns Three Dives. I will eat here four more times before I leave.
The thatch-roofed bar at Xtabi is empty. Darkness has settled and an off-season torpor hangs in the air. The bartender seems inconvenienced by our arrival. When I have another Dirty Banana in front of me, the owner emerges from the kitchen. He’s of average build, bronzed, with a head of curly, dwindling hair. His greeting is avuncular and reserved solely for the girls. I’m forced to introduce myself and I tell him I’m doing a story on Negril. “I want to know how the area has changed over the last few decades,” I say, watching regretfully as that last word hurtles toward the aging expatriate. He shoots me a dirty look as if the goldenhairs he’s doing his damnedest to impress weren’t aware that he is old enough to be their father’s older brother. Thoroughly snubbed, I say to myself, “It’s obvious, pal,” and go back to my drink. He returns to telling the girls about how he slaughtered a pig today at his beautiful farm where he promises to take them. “It took six bullets right in the head before it died.” The goldenhairs squirm in their seats. Their boyfriends and I are at once embarrassed for him and amused and we turn our grins to the wall.
Two middle-aged men have joined us at the bar. We exchange greetings and the one seated next to me says this is his seventeenth stay in Negril. “I come for the ganj, mon, and the beach. You should see this place in March, 22-year-old tits everywhere.” His friend has placed a copy of a Jimmy Buffet novel on the bar.
“Had any Jamaican pussy yet?” he asks, leaning well into what I’ve always considered my personal space.
“Is it on the menu?” I retort. My sarcasm is lost on him. His breath is thick with rum.
“I’ll tell you,” he continues, “you haven’t lived until you’ve had a Jamaican woman ride your face for an hour.”
“Really,” I slurp the dregs in my glass, and excuse myself. This scene, too, is Negril.
SHUFFLING AND HUSTLING
Come nightfall, Negril undergoes a transformation. The West End is primordially quiet. Beyond the reach of streetlights, the jungle looms dark and ominous; insects hum, bats flutter; the ocean gently laps the cliffs and the sky is a glut of stars. But down on the beach the party is just beginning.
I’m crammed into the back of a small Toyota, riding the transmission hump between four other people. Kirk and Craig, two young Jamaicans who hang out by the hotel’s front gate, sit on my left. They’ve adopted me, in a manner of speaking, for the night. Seated on my right is a couple we picked up along the way. The woman has had her braided in the traditional Caribbean way and as the car swerves to avoid an infinite number of potholes her beaded tresses swing against my cheek.
We arrive at Alfred’s, a restaurant and bar located among the strip of resorts that line the beach. Everyone piles out and I pay the driver. I notice I’m the only one who pays him. He, of course, cannot make change and it seems this is his last stop. As it turns out, he’s a friend of Kirk and Craig’s, and he’s coming with us. Making our way through the parking lot filled with guys hustling and pushing everything from a cab ride to “the best Alaskan bud” to cocaine, I can hear a woman’s voice crooning the refrain to Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” Beyond the bar, the beach is packed with people. Jamaicans and tourists of all ages sway to the easy beat. I order a Red Stripe and work my way through the crowd. Kirk and Craig shadow me. “Mon, you gonna get you friends someting to drink?” “Look,” I begin, “I paid for the ride. Time are tight, all around.” “C’mon, mon,” says Craig. “We’re all gonna go to Compulsion later and bust it up. You’re with us , mon. You ride back with us, tonight. We na gonna charge you.”
Their overtures to me are interjected with brief exchanges in Patois which, unable to understand, I am left to assume I’m not to know what they’re discussing. Dressed in baggy jeans and Hilfiger tops, these two look like they could be from any city in the States. Their stares radiate a subtle mix of menace and entreaty; a combination that destroys my resolve and has me digging in my pockets for some more Jay. Not exactly sure why I’m doing it, and feeling like the victim of a Jedi mind trick, I buy each of them a beer. We clink a joyless toast and turn our attention to the state where the band slips seamlessly into another cover tune. It’s Motown, I think.
This disparity contributes to a right-and-wrong-side-of-the-tracks atmosphere, the rise of the gated all-inclusive resort that couldn’t care less if you and your money never leave the compound and whose profits don’t trickle beyond the front gate except for a cheap beer, a carved mask or an ounce of ganj.
I consider wandering down the beach to another venue, maybe Roots Bamboo or Risky Business, but it’s the off-season. The only real scene tonight is Alfred’s. Tomorrow it will be somewhere else, likewise the following night and the night after that. I’m told that during peak season, Thanksgiving to mid-April, every venue will be packed and Negril’s music scene will be pumping out huge helpings of Reggae, Ska, Rocksteady, Motown, House and any and all variations in between. Music here is imply not something you do without.
Around 1:00 AM Alfred’s is winding down. I’m sitting at a picnic table on the beach nursing a beer. Kirk and Craig are conspicuously absent. Presently, another young Jamaican joins me. He has an innocent look to him and asks where I’m from. We talk for a while. His name is Irving; he’s got family in the Bronx, whom he’s visited a few times and he thinks New York City is the greatest place on earth. The conversation flows from music to clothes to his job at Hedonism, an all-inclusive resort notorious for offering a Dionysian experience and around which rumors of bacchanalian feasts and orgies circulate. Irving works in the kitchen and to prove it he shows me his check for the week. He’s netted a little over one hundred and fifty bucks and is excited to say he has a day pass lined up for tomorrow, when he will hopefully mingle with some of Hedonism’s patrons and, as he says, “help some Stella get her groove back.”
Done with my beer, I stand up and say goodbye. Immediately, Irving’s tone changes. “Where are you going, mon? I got a car out front. I’ll take you. Where you want to go?” he asks quickly. “No thanks. I’m all set,” I say, trying not to feel like our genuinely candid conversation was leading all along to a few bucks for a ride back to the hotel. He pursues me out to the parking lot where at least fifty other guys are hanging out, hustling amidst the tangle of cars, each one a private taxi with fares subject to supply and demand and how well you can bargain. Even with his job, Irving, like so many other your Jamaicans, is working the low-level grift. Whatever I want he’ll get for me. If I don’t want the cab ride then maybe I’d like to buy us each a Red Stripe, or some ganj? No problem. Cocaine my thing? No problem. Prostitute? No problem. Here, hustling is always direct, yet the offer is often couched in body language that leaves you feeling an unsettling combination of inchoate anger and guilt. Irving is lucky. He is doing better than many citizens of a nation where tourism, the number-one industry, is unable to accommodate a work force the outstrips the supply of jobs. This disparity contributes to a right-and-wrong-side-of-the-tracks atmosphere, the rise of the gated all-inclusive resort that couldn’t care less if you and your money never leave the compound and whose profits don’t trickle beyond the front gate except for a cheap beer, a carved mask or an ounce of ganj.
DRIFTING IN THE TIDE
When I return to my room, I consider gong to sleep, but I feel like a swim. Already dressed for it, I follow a set of stairs down to the water and slip into a sea so warm it’s as if I’ve been turned inside out, bathed in blood, sewn myself into an amniotic sac; this is man’s attraction to the sea explained. Fifty yards from shore I think I could keep right on going out beyond the reef over the depths of the Cayman Trench, north toward Cuba or westward to Honduras, maybe Mexico. On my back, stroking hard, I’m soon out beyond the reach of the floodlights that illuminate the cliff face. The shoreline shrinks. In the moonless sky the Leonid meteor shower is in full swing and shooting stars skim toward the horizon. The water is noticeably cooler out here. Darker. Deeper. Vastness below and above. I face the open ocean and imagine myself lost at sea: no lights, a flat, featureless horizon. This freaks me out sufficiently, and, breathing hard with my limbs growing heavy, I paddle for the lava cliffs that boiled up out of a vent in the ocean floor millions of years ago. Halfway there I stop to catch my wind and consider from a distance the island on which I spent the past eight days. What strikes me most at that moment isn’t the sheer cliffs, the warmth of the ocean, or the meteors’ fading trails, but the silence, a pervasive stillness that ignores the electric lights, the paved roads, the march of progress: a calm from long ago.
After I returned to the States, a cab driver told me he was going home to Jamaica for the holidays. I said I had recently visited Negril. He was unimpressed. I asked him what town he was from. “Sheffield, in the parish of…”
“Westmoreland,” I said, finishing the sentence for him.
“Ya, mon. Ya, mon,” he said smiling and noticeably excited. “I was there,” I said. “Oh, mon. You saw Jamaica. You a traveler. You got to explore if you gonna really see a place. You got to see the people, mon, see the land, see the poverty, see everyting.”
“I didn’t see everything,” I confessed. “But I left the hotel, I walked all around, I toured the countryside and went into the hills. Too many people go an never set foot outside the resorts except to go to the airport. They may as well go sit on the beach in Florida.”
“Ya, mon. You got to see a place, see the good and the bad, all of it with your own eyes to really see it.”
—Originally published in “Roam” a small travel magazine published in New York City by MundoVibe’s Editor John C. Tripp. Although this article was written some ten years ago, little has changed in Jamaica. The sun still rises every day and hundreds of thousands of tourists continue to flock to its paradisiacal lands.