Rum, Reggae and the Roots of Retailing. My Jamaican Vacation - by Mitch Lemus

My Jamaican Vacation
by Mitch Lemus

"Psssssst...psssssst," hissed a young Jamaican man wearing but a filthy pair of brown tattered pants hanging precariously from his protuberant buttocks.

"Yah mon, come here for a second, I want to talk t'you! You guys need any-ting?...You jus' got here?...Where you from?...New York? ...Yah mon. Where you stayin'?...How long you goin' t'be 'ere?...My name is Farmer Billy. You need some ganja? No? Den how 'bout ganja bread? What 'bout some mushroom tea, make you see colors, yah mon."

"No thanks, we already see in color."

"Ha, ha, ha, ha. You a funny guy," he laughed, revealing a mouth of missing teeth. "How 'bout some nice bracelet or necklace for the lady?

"No thank you, we didn't bring any money with us...we were just taking a walk along the beach," said my girlfriend, Nina.

"Hey mon, where you guys runnin'? You want to rent scooter? Go for tour in de mountains? Well, if you need any-ting, look for me, Farmer Billy, OK mon? I see you around." He took my hand, shaking it Jamaican style -- fists meet over, under, then head-on. "Hey mon, you got cig'rette for mi? OK mon, every-ting be irie."

Welcome to Negril, Jamaica, where you hang a shingle outside your roadside shanty and you have a hotel. If your house has a kitchen, you also have a restaurant. And if you happen to have a car, you're a taxi driver, too.

Beautiful beaches, warm turquoise waters and dramatic sunsets confirm Negril's status as a Caribbean paradise. But Negril is more than a vacation destination. It's an education in sales, marketing and economics at its most base level. An impoverished country, dollar signs dance in the eyes of the poor at the sight of tourists. For many visitors, the constant haranguing by hard-sell hucksters can be irritating, if not downright frightening. Yet, Nina and I found their persistence, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurial tactics a bemusing, culturally enlightening experience.

If haggling with the locals is not your idea of fun, you'd be better off within the confines of one of Negril's luxurious all-inclusive resorts. But if adventure and divergent cultures turn you on, then the small independent properties along Negril's cliffs and 7-mile beach are for you.

Those who visit the bohemian enclave of Negril seem to give themselves permission to go a little wild; to indulge in vices and do things they would normally not -- like go naked on a quiet stretch of beach -- eat deep-fried foods -- or engage in a romantic interracial fling. The destination attracts a large contingent of French, Italians, Germans and Canadians in addition to Americans. Unfortunately, the week we were there in March, the place was overrun with Spring Breakers. They're the loud rude ones with backwards baseball caps emblazoned with university insignias.

Upon landing in Montego Bay, Nina and I boarded an old rickety bus en route to our hotel. For the next hour and a half we bounced along narrow meandering roads, dodging goats, chickens, cattle, and school children in uniform.

Over the 52 mile journey, we passed one ramshackle shelter after another. Houses of cards, seemingly on the brink of collapse, patched together with weathered wood, rusty sheet metal and assorted scraps like Pepsi billboards.

Ubiquitous roadside shacks that dot the landscape are the 7-11s of Jamaica, from which rural peasants stock a meager inventory of beer, soda, cigarettes, and fruit. But mostly, they're hangouts for locals to pass idle time.

More than a decade after his death, Bob Marley, the legendary reggae icon, is still revered like a god. Possessing the marketing power of a Michael Jordan, his likeness appears everywhere from giant wall murals to T-shirts to wood carvings. Music is an integral part of Jamaican life and the people are forever singing to themselves. Much of the country's music has political undertones urging Jamaicans to stand up for their rights and rise up against oppression. Reggae music is everywhere, evoking a pleasantly hypnotic ambience. But at times I found the music an irritating cacophony, like when sitting in reggae purgatory -- the area between two songs blasting from opposite directions.

Every night bands can be found performing at the area's many nightspots. The first place we hit, an open-air venue on the cliffs called MX-3, turned out to be as much a fleabag flea market as it was a performance space. Inside, a few dim bulbs dangled crudely casting eerie shadows, while the band seemed merely to serve as background muzak to the commerce. A $10 cover charge gets you inside, only to be relentlessly hit upon by a corps of craft vendors who perceived looking tantamount to buying. My pale white skin seemed to attract them like a neon light blinking "TOURI$T, TOURI$T, NAIVE TOURI$T, FRESH OFF THE PLANE!" Each vendor peddled virtually identical merchandise: rope bracelets, beaded necklaces, shell earrings, T-shirts, hand-carved pot pipes and other Jamaican tsatskes. And each proclaimed that his was "de best."

The best way to weasel out of their high-pressure tactics, I discovered, was to tell them I couldn't buy anything without asking "my lady," -- who'd be slinking away in embarrassment. "Why must you dicker over two bucks?" Nina would chide me. "Just give the guy the five dollars -- he'll be able to feed his family for a week."

Even MX-3's squalid bathrooms did not dampen the sales spirit. While doing my business at a stall, a young man produced a large bag of ganja and began his spiel. "Can we discuss this later?" I asked. "I'm busy now." Was there not anything nor any place sacred in this land? Exiting the club that night, Nina and I were besieged by a tenacious gang of taxi drivers. "Come wid me, come wid me, mon!" each barked, clawing for our business. Apparently, dispatchers are an unknown occupation in Negril.

Generally, Negril's taxis shuttle tourists between the beach and cliffs where most of the hotels and restaurants are located. Taxis are constantly on the prowl, beeping at any foreigner that moves. The cabbies all want to be your "contact" for anything you may need under the Jamaican sun. Legitimate cabs can be identified by their red license plates. However, most taxis are just some guy and his jalopy looking to gouge unsuspecting tourists. Always negotiate the fare before you get in, and when the driver quotes a price, immediately halve it.

"Oh c'mon, you can't be serious," we'd gripe. "100J for a ride to the cliffs? You've got to be kidding! The guy over there said he'd take us for 50," we'd bluff in unison.

"No way, mon. Nobody take you for dat little amount," the driver would argue. "Can't make no livin' for money like dat." As we'd turn to walk away, he'd concede. "OK, OK, 50J. Get in mon," grabbing us before we strolled too far.

One of the wrecks we rode in was stripped bare of its interior vinyl and upholstery, revealing the mechanical parts within the doors. To keep the wind from blowing in Nina's face, the driver reached back over the seat, turning the broken window knob with a wrench -- all while driving! In another taxi, the rear seats were nothing more than springs covered with carpeting. Ironically, despite their decrepit condition, nearly every taxi boasted a high-end sound system cranking reggae tunes at ear-shattering decibels.

With no traffic lights or road signs, drivers frantically honk their horns when approaching blind curves to warn oncoming vehicles. In some places, the road is too narrow for cars to pass in opposite directions, forcing one car to either back up or pull over to the side.

Even by New York standards, Negril's taxi driver's are certified maniacs. At times, you're certain that a smashup is imminent. And driving on the left side as they do in Jamaica does nothing to allay those fears. One cabbie making small talk, volunteered that a driver had flipped his van three times the previous day. Thanks for putting us at ease, mister.

Another night our driver seemed to go out of his way to drive with extreme caution. We complimented his diligence until we noticed his glazed eyes and bizarre grin. The only reason he was driving so slow we learned, was because he was tripping on mushrooms, and was having trouble negotiating the curves. Of course, you don't have to take cabs. You can just as easily lose your life in Negril in a rented car, motorcycle or scooter.

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Copyright © Mitch Lemus