As we rolled into Port Antonio, Jamaica, we really did not have any preconceived ideas of what we would find. Not intending to spend any time there, we had not done our normal research and other than Hussein Bolt, Bob Marley, and the local herb trade, we knew little about the island.
As we turned the corner into Errol Flynn Marina we were struck by the lush and vibrant greenery all around us. The marina was modest in size but was clean and neat and it formed part of a government run waterfront complex that included a beach, bar, restaurant, haul-out facility and of course, an ice cream parlour. We were met by Paul Dodd, a native white Jamaican, who switches easily between the different local dialects, and was extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable. He gave us a tour of the area to include the “world class beach, world class ice cream store, etc.” This has been a theme throughout the trip with every island claiming “world class” something or another. It was a very nice facility with showers, laundry, hot water and wifi…life was good.
We hired a driver and toured the island to see the Blue Mountain Coffee area, Kingston and Port Royal, and ended up at the Royal Jamaican Yacht Club for a drink. Later in the week we were invited to the opening of the marina restaurant and the cost of a five-course dinner was to simply provide feedback to the new owners. After four days in Port Antonio we had a beautiful sail down to Montego Bay where we anchored in front of the “Mo Bay” yacht club and spent the following morning provisioning before relaxing in the charming colonial yacht club, drinking Red Stripe and reading the paper.
We are now coasting down the northern side of the island on our way to Panama and reflecting on our unplanned eight-day stopover in Jamaica. To pretend that the island is not rife with the similar ailments that afflict the rest of the Caribbean would not be honest. Decaying infrastructure, garbage strewn everywhere in the streets, and an endless supply of underemployed, idle men and women are just the tip of the iceberg.
Once a thriving British Colony, Jamaica has retained strong cultural ties to England, if only in the affluent areas of the country. Its previous industries of sugar and mineral export have largely dried up and the country is almost exclusively dependent on the mega resorts, which line the northern shore. Tourists fly in from all over the world, swim in the crystal blue waters in front of the hotel, gorge themselves at tables overflowing with food, and generally avoid Jamaican society. We had heard tales of security concerns and with memories of James Bond and Live and Let Die (who could forget the creepy voodoo guy?) in our head, we were initially reluctant to wander far from the marina. With assurances of Paul (“this is the safest city in the Caribbean…”) we ventured into the somewhat sketchy town of Port Antonio.
While not in line for the Top Ten Places in the world to live, the people we met were generally friendly and welcoming. We were approached by several young men trying to take us on tours of the island and sell us various knick-knacks, but all were polite and harmless. Our driver who took us on our tour provided greater insight into the character of the different parishes and the Jamaican people. Unrestrained by politically correct North American white guilt, she offered a very critical appraisal of the typical Jamaican worker. The Chinese have made great inroads into most of the Caribbean and Jamaica is no different. As she said, the Chinese worked harder, longer and with less complaining than their local counterparts. She also noted that these same Jamaicans would move to Canada and would work 18-hour days without issue!
We visited the Twymann coffee plantation and were hosted by Mrs. Twymann, a charming, petite, white haired woman approaching 80, who owns and runs a plantation of several thousand acres and over 60 employees at harvest time. Living alone in a very modest cottage perched on the side of the mountain, Mrs. Twymann roasts the coffee beans in a back shed attached to her home. She spoke with an educated British accent although born and raised in Jamaica, and she welcomed us into her home to have coffee and Danishes on her terrace with one of the most majestic views that we have ever seen. The coffee was delicious and we were able to purchase a pound for the reduced rate of $50 USD… We left her home feeling that we had just spent an hour with a very special lady.
In Montego Bay we spent the afternoon at the Yacht Club where the staff was warm, helpful and very welcoming. Realizing that we present as something between Robinson Caruso and the homeless, everyone could not have been nicer. They arranged customs and immigration (similar dog and pony show to the DR but friendly and no bribes…), called a driver to take us shopping and helped us negotiate the departure paperwork. We lounged around the pool and generally hung out like the posers we are, revelling in the last bit of old world civilisation that we will see for a few months.
So in conclusion Jamaica is a contradiction; extreme poverty juxtaposed beside ostentatious wealth, hostile angry men at theconstruction site and delightful staff at both marinas.
With very few exceptions we found the people charming, friendly and keen to show us their country. While heavily reliant on tourism, the island has a vibrant local culture based on music, food and sport, which is independent of the herds of foreign tourists who arrive each winter. Reggae emanating from every radio, car and nightclub, roadside jerk chicken and pork on every corner, and murals of Jamaican runners throughout the towns, are just some of the visible signs of this national pride. We leave Jamaica very glad that we made it part of our itinerary and look forward to a return in the fall.