by Mitch Lemus
Continued from previous page
Our hotel, Negril Gardens, turned out to be one of the nicer properties on the beach. Two-story pink-and-white structures situated in a garden setting, featuring clean modern rooms, air conditioning, and hot water with good pressure. Situated near private residences, we awoke each morning to the sound of crowing roosters.
The air and land package via Liberty Travel out of JFK cost us about $900 per person for 7 nights. For the cost-conscious, there are many lesser properties as well as camp sites. For those traveling with families or seeking kitchen appliances, cottages and villas are also available.
Negril Gardens was one of the few properties to employ a lifeguard (who also doubled as the towel boy). But when not napping beneath the shade of a tree, he was getting high there, exhaling huge plumes of piquant smoke.
There's an invisible line that separates hotel properties from the public beach. As long as you're behind it, your hotel is a safe haven where vendors know not to tread. To deter trespassers, many hotels station security guards on the beach. They sit there in uniform all day, apparently impervious to the assortment of bare-breasted beauties that abound. Unlike me and my Nikon ANF (Automatic Nipple Finder) that radars in on topless women from a quarter-mile away.
Water sports are readily available, and one day I went parasailing. For seven minutes of my ten-minute flight, the speed boat drifted me over beachgoers as if I were an advertising tow-banner.
The Jamaican sun is deceptively strong, even during winter. Apply suntan lotion like wall spackling and use liberal amounts of aloe and moisturizer too. Don't buy some no-name brand just to save a few dollars. I brought Roval brand SPF 25 from Rockbottom, which had the look, smell and consistency of Elmer's glue. By my second day in Jamaica I had heat blisters on my neck and shoulders. As I write this a week later, flakes of skin fall to my keyboard.
Ganja, the potent strain of marijuana that is grown locally is easily available. Although illegal, the authorities seem to turn a blind eye as long as you don't flaunt it. Warning: Don't ever try to smuggle it out of the country. If you are entertaining those thoughts, rent the video "Midnight Express" immediately.
During the course of our stay Nina and I became friendly with some teenagers who worked at our hotel. One we dubbed "Sneakerhead" because of the Nike logo shaved into the back of his head. While signing out beach towels from his booth one morning, he whispered, "Hey, you guys need any ganja? I got de big bud, mon. Dis stuff grown in de mountains." It must have been the hundredth time we were propositioned for it.
"You got that stuff!!!?" I shot back wide-eyed. Sneakerhead's face lit up, as if he had struck gold.
"Shhhh, not so loud! What you need?"
"Nothing," I said, deadpan. "I already have enough to last a lifetime." Sneakerhead, nevertheless, persuaded me to give him five dollars in exchange for some of his stuff which he claimed was vastly superior to the "dirt" everyone else sold. Reaching into a brown paper bag, Sneakerhead grabbed a fistful of pungent, sappy buds, and shoved them into my hand. No plastic baggie, no envelope, no nothing, but a handful of ganja. "This stuff grows faster here than the dust bunnies under your bed," Nina commented.
The Jamaicans have even found ways to incorporate their lucrative cash crop into their cuisine. "I got carrot cake, chocolate cake, banana cake and ganja cake," a waitress told us matter-of-factly one night.
"Ganja cake!? How much does that cost?"
"30J a slice. Same as all de others," as if ganja cake were as wholesome as apple pie.
Since most of the eating establishments are right on the beach, it's not unusual for ants to boldly parade across your table. After a few meals they become part of the ambiance. Don't be too hungry or in a hurry. There's no such thing as prompt or attentive service. It can take 20 minutes until a waiter even acknowledges your presence. Not because they don't like you. But because, what's the rush? They figure they have no place to go, and neither do you. Relax. Every-ting be irie.
If you don't want to spend your valuable tanning time languishing in a restaurant, ask for the check before the end of your meal. And when it arrives, pay it then and there. Always try to have exact change, because if the waitress owes you a few dollars, there's a good chance you may never see her again.
The only place we found cheap fast-food was a falafel cart on the beach. But when I asked the falafel lady to wrap my falafel to go, she looked at me as if I were from another planet. I then realized that bags were a scarce and valuable commodity among the poor, and that my request was above and beyond the normal level of service. The falafel lady was, however, able to scrounge up a beat-up plastic supermarket baggie. And for this, I felt compelled to leave a tip.
One cannot say they've experienced the local cuisine without having tried Jamaica's famed Jerk Chicken. Marinated in a spicy hot sauce and slowly barbecued (often in a makeshift oil drum) over pimento wood, it's best washed down with a cold Red Stripe beer or Ting grapefruit soda. Fries are a popular side order, and the ones we sampled were merely hollow vehicles for grease -- yet truly delicious.
While walking along the beach one day, Nina and I stopped at a fruit stand to buy some sliced mango. Soon an aloe lady, a hair braiding lady and a dreadlocked crafts vendor were hovering around us like sharks attracted to blood. "Hey mister, come take a lookie lookie at what I have," said the crafts vendor tying a rope bracelet around my wrist. Meanwhile, the aloe lady began rubbing her miracle lotion on our backs, extolling its virtues. "It cool you sunburn, git rida you rashes and pimples, keepit away mosquitoes and keepit dem bite from itchin. Drink it to cure you bellyache and to get rid a you cold." We declined her aloe massage which in no way dissuaded her from slathering more on. A dental anomaly with gold caps gracing four of her seven remaining teeth, and a shower cap adorning her head, the aloe lady looked about 10 months pregnant. "If mi baby is a girl I'm going to name her after you, Nina, because you so pretty," beamed the aloe lady. We smiled, paid for our mango and began to resume our walk, whereas the aloe lady growled, "Hey, where you two goin'? You bot' owe mi five dollar for mi aloe massage!"
"Huh? We never asked you to rub that stuff on us," we protested. In fact, her touch gave me the heebie-jeebies. We offered her two bucks as a charitable gesture, but she demanded the full $10, refusing to accept anything less. So we pocketed our cash and walked off while the aloe lady cursed us up and down the beach threatening to cast a spell on us.
Needless to say, we found the Jamaican way of doing business rather odd. In some eateries, beverages and desserts are sold by a different "company" than the rest of the menu, and you receive a separate check for them. And at souvenir huts, items belong to different vendors. It's as if you went to K-Mart and had to negotiate the price of each item in your shopping cart with a different cashier.
Some vendors claim they can't change large bills, and hope you'll just bestow them with the difference. As a tourist buying touristy things, you may very well find yourself confused and disoriented, especially when trying to calculate the exchange rate.
But the shenanigans weren't just limited to peddlers. One morning we redeemed a certificate entitling us to a free welcome breakfast, courtesy of our travel representative. The hostess introduced us to a well-groomed Jamaican named Collins who would acclimate us and answer all our questions, we were told. "Please -- order anything you want from our breakfast menu. You guys are going to love it here. If you need anything or have any problems, just let me know, and I'll take care of it." We were impressed by his warmth and hospitality.
Then the Timeshare Nightmare. It was soon apparent that the free breakfast was nothing more than a hook. And Collins was nothing more than a well-dressed, better-spoken hustler. Instead of finagling us for a few dollars for drugs or souvenirs, Collins wanted a few thousand dollars for a timeshare. Because we were so "perfect" for a timeshare, Collins had a special offer for us. An offer not normally extended to the general public... if we signed up now. Of course we couldn't have some time to think about it. What was there to think about, anyway?
The sun was shining brilliantly, and Nina and I were itching to get out of there without appearing rude. We gave many legitimate reasons why we were not interested, all to no avail. "Look, Collins," I finally said. "We'll level with you. We have no money. We won this trip on a game show. You ever hear of The Wheel of Fortune?" Five minutes later we were on the beach.
Despite the entrepreneurial antics, Negril is an unforgettably great time. Buy a few trinkets to wear shortly after you get there to keep the vendors at bay. Enjoy the island's rum punch and other special delights for that "no-problem-every-ting-be-irie" attitude; be friendly and don't take anything too seriously. And keep in mind that everything is negotiable. There are no set prices, and bullshiting is standard business practice. Go. And learn what they don't teach you in business school. Yah mon.