“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” ~ Bob Marley
It’s unfortunate – I think – that we are often the masters of our own deception, subconsciously yet nevertheless willingly crafting our own undoing. And I suppose it’s understandable, after having experienced a series of uncomfortable events in unfamiliar territory, that I would retreat back into my survival instinct, immediately canvassing my options for opportunities to escape. Having few options available, I dug in and raised the walls, deciding that I’ll wait it out by keeping my area of reconnaissance to a minimum. And just like that, I nearly forfeited one of the best nights we would experience during the entire journey to this little island in the Caribbean.
Our visit to Jamaica began with a touchdown at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, or “Mo Bay” if we use the local vernacular. Normally, my inclinations are to let every new adventure unfold naturally, easing my way into a new environment by creating a necessity for getting acquainted with the local population. Walking through the exit gates of an air terminal into the open streets of a strange land is a powerful motivator to ask complete strangers for directions to the evening’s lodging, or where best to get a meal, and is a fool-proof way to get a conservation started and make a new acquaintance. It’s also an acid test of one’s faith in their fellow man. So, knowing this has always worked in the past, I of course ignored it entirely and allowed an acquaintance to arrange for us to meet with a local. As it turned out, this experience only underlined my preference for “taking my chances” with befriending the local population.
Suffice it to say our fist evening in Jamaica was an unfavorable experience. And if that’s where the story ended it would be much less interesting than events subsequent to getting hustled by an opportunist. But that’s not where the story ends, because, of course, our opportunist was not indicative of the Jamaican people we would meet subsequent to that first, unfavorable evening. Jamaica, for me, was an acquired taste, one that I had to work hard at appreciating. Because even though by the end of our week on the island I still wasn’t swept away by what I had experienced, I must admit that the place and its people were starting to make inroads.
And some I’ve spoke with find it interesting that we, as enlightened Westerners, a population group in the very enviable position of having time, and options, to reflect, study and investigate, choose instead to pursue fallacy and baseless judgment. All too often, I say, we find it entirely appropriate to dismiss patience as a virtuous characteristic, and instead engage in the unsavory act of practicing blissful ignorance to local politics and economic realities, transcending into further insensitivity of local customs, traditions and the unique characteristics of a population. Ignorance is a luxury and convenience reserved for the wealthy.
Perhaps it’s simply being hemmed in, compressed by restrictive time-lines where we must hastily plan and initiate a visit, inserting ourselves into a destination of choice and then abruptly retreat back to that which we are much more familiar with. Lacking sufficient time for an adventure, we instead plan an escape from the workplace and home, observing an unfamiliar land and the strange, interesting faces much in the same manner as someone who had walked across town to observe a new park or neighborhood.
For many of us the practice of “just passing through” accomplishes nothing more than whetting our curiosity, liberating our imagination without providing a measure of satisfaction as to what lies beyond the streets teaming with tourists shopping for souvenir refrigerator magnets. This of course begs the question; where does the façade end, and how do we know we’ve crossed over? There is, of course, no definitive boundary, and what we are left with is our observations and applied reasoning to measure the qualities and characteristics of one population or area from that of another. For some of us, understanding the dynamics of the transition is an area of great fascination, requiring more than a holiday’s allocation of time to observe.
Day two of our Jamaican holiday began with an epiphany. For the first time on a journey into parts unknown I awoke feeling discouraged. Gone was the sense of adventure and the anticipation of discovery. I simply wanted to exit Mo Bay, cautiously hoping the remaining corners of Jamaica on our schedule would reinvigorate my oppressed excitement and travel-lust. Over breakfast I made an attempt at being introspective, hoping to shed light on the source of my negative disposition. Was it Jamaica, or was it me?
Geography is not something to be underestimated. There are places in this world that simply agree with us. It’s fascinating to me when so many unfailingly agree that living in a “good neighborhood” is always desirable, yet remain genuinely baffled when someone expresses a desire to relocate outside their homeland. Typically, at least in my experience, those most mystified by the idea are also those less traveled. But I believe it transcends even that, and is based on the premise that one’s home is always “best,” and where one should remain. Now, we could explore the baselessness – in my opinion – of the premise, but that’s not the direction of this story so, – for now – I’ll attempt to circumvent the topic. So we may continue moving this conversation forward, let’s for the moment agree on the necessity of finding the dynamics which suit us, and provide the environment and atmosphere we need to achieve harmony. I agree it sounds cliché, but know from personal experience the need is entirely real and justified.
After breakfast we walked across the street to a park adjacent to the Caribbean, exploring the rocks which formed a sea wall. Perhaps a half-dozen solitary Fisherman were silently plying the bay in narrow boats, forming tiny silhouettes against the vast Caribbean Sea on the horizon. I found my spirits stirring, yet the atypical feeling of not wanting to venture beyond our hotel remained. I was in a funk, and externalizing the cause as being Mo Bay. The park was a temporary sanctuary, where I felt safe and could consume time until we departed the next morning. And then Marshall appeared, providing refreshments in the form of flavored water, insight into Jamaican culture and society, and the warmth and generosity I’d been hoping to find in the Jamaican people. It was a much needed experience and dose of reality on life in Jamaica.
Reinvigorated, we ventured along the coastline a few kilometers and into downtown Mo Bay. Although I cannot in good conscience recommend you do the same, I do highly recommend a visit to any of the street markets, one of which we visited on our return to the hotel. Yeah, the vendors do clamor for you to buy their goods, but it’s informative and only fair to understand these folks are often living in what we would consider desperate situations, where every dollar counts. But putting that aside, we’ve yet to visit any market without coming away better informed about life in the area we’re exploring, and about the people who work day-to-day just trying to make a living. I suppose without having the time or resources to explore further, this is about as close to reality as a traveler may get.
It was later that evening when we would found ourselves speeding across the bay in pursuit of sea birds as they chased fish surfacing to feed on shrimp lying near the water’s surface. Earlier that afternoon we had stopped in at Biggs BBQ Restaurant for lunch which, by the way, easily qualifies as one of the best dining experiences we had anywhere on the island. Mr. Biggs is also known for his hospitality, which we experienced first-hand when he greeted us at our table before our first meal. Not only is his food outstanding but, as we discovered during our conversation, Biggs is a terrific source of information on Jamaican life.
It was while enjoying the view and terrific food at Biggs that we met Greg, proprietor of Paddle Board Jamaica , and also an all-around decent and very fun guy. Our initial meeting was brief but informative, and at first did little to alleviate my lingering doubt that my time on the island would convince me that one day I would desire a return visit. It was not that Greg was overtly negative about the island – he actually made great efforts to describe it’s abundant beauty – but emphasized the importance of visiting areas outside of Mo Bay. As I was yet to be overly fond of Jamaica, Greg’s comments provided a measure of optimism about our visit, if not our time in Mo Bay. Before leaving Biggs, we scheduled a paddle boarding session with Greg for later that afternoon.
As we walked the distance between Biggs and our hotel, I was reminded of how expectations can quickly blind us of appreciating what lies at our feet. I’d come to Jamaica not knowing what to expect, yet wanted something other than what I was experiencing. Was I seeking the same feelings I’d experienced from a previous journey? Or was the mystery to the cause of my disappointment hidden within the Geography we discussed earlier? Were Jamaica and I simply never destined to be suitable? And was it possible, as much as I may have wanted to deny it, that I had become the small-minded, naïve tourist with pre-conceived ideas that I so often enjoy criticizing? I didn’t know, and as I changed into my swimming trunks I also began to feel the pangs of anger that follow unresolved frustration. This, I thought, is far too much drama for what is supposed to be a vacation.
Sunsets in the Caribbean are stunning. Shuffling through the sand as we walked across the beach near Biggs, I noticed the previously colorful boats and sky had become near silhouettes. The cause, of course, was the spectacular sphere of glowing orange, resting just above the edge of the sea in the distance. Attempting to locate Greg and his boat against this sky was an exercise in futility, so we found a comfortable location along the water’s edge and sat down, content in knowing we had finally found a semblance of rhythm to this journey. Perhaps the truth to Jamaica lies within the pace at which you receive what it has to offer. I adjusted myself more comfortably in the warm sand and looked towards the horizon.
“Get your stuff on board and let’s get back out there” Greg said as we stepped from the pier to board his boat the “Rumbera.” “Look for the birds” Greg explained, “That’s where the schools of fish are.” Beneath the darkening skies which quickly obscured our previously fabulous sunset, we ventured out into the bay in search of gathering birds. The evening and darkness descended upon us, heightening our sense of space and time. Plans? We had none, which from the outset was our only goal. Over the next several hours we explored the waters of Mo Bay, chasing the birds and surfacing fish as Greg and friend cast their fishing lines into the Caribbean. We had lost our sunset and would never paddle board that evening, but I doubt a scripted evening would have provided a better turn of events. The bay and the night were ours.
We often need to rely on nothing more than faith, both in our ability and judgment, and in the innate goodness of those we’ve never met but with whom we are destined to cross paths. After all, what other options do we really have? It’s easy to conceptualize and advance what we presume to be an inevitable and desirable outcome, yet such thoughts are merely conjecture if unchallenged and measured against time and history. But isn’t it both interesting and wonderful how truth so often tells a more compelling story than anything conceived in isolation from experience?
Our dinner that evening was on the deck at Biggs, and consisted of fresh sashimi tuna caught from our boat only two hours earlier, floated ashore on a paddle board, seared and then garnished in lime juice, pepper and seasonings. I’ve never tasted better. Greg talked about his life in Jamaica, comparing and contrasting with his time in America. A few of his friends stopped in and joined the conversation. We shared travel experiences, observations on life, our expectations. A heavy rain began to fall, we huddled beneath the noise under a wooden canopy and shared laughs. As I nursed the sting from a jelly fish encounter earlier that evening while diving from our boat, Greg and friends helped me put away a bucket of iced Red Stripe. As the rain intensified, Biggs suddenly appeared at our table to check on us, sharing some of his experiences in the hotel industry, and then slipped away back to his kitchen. Other tables began to clear as people ducked inside the restaurant for shelter. We stayed outside, huddled beneath the noise of heavy rain, sharing, laughing, watching the day follow the sun as it receded beneath the sea.
Back to Castaway Planet