Jamaica is synonymous with reggae, its easy-going lifestyle and legends such as Bob Marley and Usain Bolt. My first 72 hours in Jamaica revealed a number of unexpected traits, some better than others. I will reveal the seven things that formed my first impressions of this Caribbean island nation.
We cruised our motor yacht from The Bahamas to Panama, a route that took as via Cuba and Jamaica. Our first night passage was between the massive natural harbour of Santiago in Cuba and Jamaica’s nearest port of entry, Port Antonio.
We could not ask for better conditions during the night passage. It was full moon with a slight sea state. However, by sunrise, the ever-present easterly wind picked up and we had to endure a relentless broadside swell. Port Antonio was still six hours away.
Apart from the physical discomfort caused by the swells and wind waves, we noticed that the bilge pump in the engine room came on regularly. That meant the boat was taking on water and we would have to do repairs in Jamaica.
Port Antonio – a sight for sore eyes
The last 20 nautical miles to Port Antonio were unpleasant, to say the very least. It was reassuring to get sight of the entrance, although she revealed herself very slowly.
It is only once you pass Folly Lighthouse that the entrances to East Harbour and West Harbour become clear.
We kept to the right, towards West Harbour, with Navy Island on starboard, and it was like entering an oasis of calm. Errol Flynn Marina is tucked away in the southern end of the harbour, completely protected from the nasty easterly winds. As we tied up to the dock, thoughts of the swells and unnerving movement of the boat vanished, almost instantly.
The small town of Port Antonio was a sight for sore eyes.
If only it was classic reggae
Clearing in was a breeze, with officials from the various government departments arriving at the boat one after the other. The best part was the 90-day tourist visa, without charge!
Our first Jamaican sunset was special. We were tired but happy, celebrating our nautical progress with a cold beer on the bow.
Then it started. The loudest, deepest bass sound imaginable.
Although Port Antonio is effectively a village in terms of size, it has several nightclubs. The nearest one was within sight from us, no more than 300m as the crow flies. I think it has the biggest subwoofers in the entire Caribbean.
Loud music is one thing. Lousy music, as in EDM, is another. By one o’clock the next morning we realised it is not going to stop before daybreak, so we just started praying for classic reggae instead.
At night, the nightclubs are pumping out the dancehall music. During the day, every second business has a speaker blaring at its door. Motor vehicles with band size amplifiers on their roofs travel up and down the main road, booming out advertisements.
The people … and the village idiot
Our interaction started at the marina, with friendly personnel assisting to tie up the boat. Then came the stream of officials, equally friendly and quite happy to chat away. No pretentions, just laidback and happy to see tourists arriving.
We were low on fresh produce so our first stop was the market, just a five-minute walk from the marina. We came across sorrel, and the old lady who had it on display were quite happy to take time and explain how the traditional sorrel drink was prepared.
We decided that Jamaicans were genuine. Their laidback nature was not a tourist show but authentic. They were friendly and helpful. We felt comfortable being there.
We also found the village idiot, likely one of just a few of his kind. It was on a crowded sidewalk where we heard him muttering behind us. He was complaining about the white man visiting his country, that we should go back to Europe. I could have explained that I am a tenth-generation African, but that would have been too much for his ganja-infused brain. We ignored him.
So Jamaica’s official language is English, right?
Listening to Jamaicans speaking English was endless fun. Here is the best explanation I can offer: if you say “beer can” with a British accent, you have just said “bacon” with a Jamaican accent.
The English that you hear in Jamaica is called Patois, pronounced ‘Patwah’. Considered a dialect, it is a combination of English and French creole with an African influence. If you ask the locals, they would say it is a language in its own right.
Whichever way you want to classify it, it is difficult to understand. In fact, it is almost surreal to listen to a Jamaican, realising that he is addressing you in English, yet not understanding what he is saying.
The “u” as in pump, is pronounced as “au” as in cause. “Is the pump on?” sounds like “Is the paump aun?” The best example of this was meeting a contractor at the marina who introduced himself as “Haulk” – his name is Hulk!
The phrase “ya’mon” is not a show for the tourists, it is very much part of Jamaica. Just go beyond the tourist traps and you will find it commonplace. However, don’t use it; leave it to the experts, as explained in this short clip I found:
But what about the insurance?
The 90km trip to Kingston was inevitable because Port Antonio did not have any of the tools or spares we needed for the boat repair.
Taking a taxi is not an option because the distance makes it prohibitively expensive. The bus is an option, but then mobility in Kingston becomes an issue.
Renting a car was the only workable solution, with the advantage that we could enjoy the scenery along the route at our own pace. We arrived at one of the two car rental businesses, quickly realising that it is not for the fainthearted.
If the daily rental rate does not make you faint, the size of the deposit will. Its magnitude has something to do with the business’s policy for first-time clients. We had little choice, so I pressed on, asking about insurance. This is how that conversation went:
“What about insurance?”
“It is included.”
“Great. Is it comprehensive or will I be liable for a portion in case of an accident?”
“Well, it depends. If it’s a small ding, you just pay $xx and we fix it. If it’s big, it depends if it’s your fault or not. If it’s your fault, we use the deposit to fix the car.”
“So insurance is not included?”
“It is, as I explained to you.”
“Who will decide if I am at fault or not?”
“How long could that take?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes they are real slow with these things.”
I just said a silent prayer, asked on which side I must drive, and left for Kingston.
The road to Kingston – it’s kinky!
When I mentioned our upcoming Kingston trip to the dock master, he frowned and offered this advice: “Keep to the left, the very left. And leave plenty of space between you and the guy in front of you”.
The journey is a tale of two parts. The first half, from Port Antonio to the so-called junction, is a scenic drive along the coast, with plenty of bends to keep you awake. The second part, over the Blue Mountain, is a white-knuckled, nerve-racking passage fit for rally drivers.
The advice became apparent. The road is extremely narrow, to the extent that you almost expect to touch the crash barrier on the left or the mirror of the oncoming car on the right. And, there are houses scattered along the winding road, with drivers simply stopping in the middle of the road to collect a passenger.
Jerk pork – the best food ever
Jerk is a style of cooking native to Jamaica. Meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a hot spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice, the main ingredients being allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers.
There are several take-away shops, but the best treats are available from the street vendors with their charcoal grills. They place a few bite-sized chunks in tin foil and if you make puppy eyes, you get a piece of hot bread too. Cheap and delicious.
“When people come to Jamaica, we don’t want them to think about the problems of Jamaica. So let them come be in their paradise” – Ziggy Marley
I would love to have your thoughts. What was your Jamaican highlight?
PS: Please remember to share this with a friend.
PPS: For another “My First 72 Hours In …” post you can read about Panama.