Wha Gwan!?

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Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Everyone knows Jamaica. It’s iconography is blatant to the point of being cliche. Rastas, Bob Marley, Marijuana, Beaches, Usain Bolt. Part of us was looking forward to validating this somewhat (minus the weed) but we were a bit hesitant as well. We’d been in relative safety for the past few weeks and Jamaica has it’s issues with crime so we raised the Defcon and started staring everyone down as we flew into Kingston early that Wednesday morning.

We’d arranged for a taxi to meet us. We had a two hour drive to the northern coast to our hotel in Ocho Rios. We could simply have flown into Montego Bay which might have made the journey shorter and cheaper but we’d gotten a decent flight deal and plus it gives us a small exposure to the rest of the Caribbean Island. Typically, we’d learn, our driver didn’t show. ‘Wha Gwan’ this older guy in a nice white shirt and pants says to us.

‘I’m sorry?’ I say..

‘Wha Gwan.. is Jamaican fo ‘what’s goin on’’ ..

‘Ahhh..’ and I can kinda see it.. I suppose if you were tired, or stoned and couldn’t talk properly ‘What’s going on’ might sound a bit like ‘Wha Gwan’..

Anyway he gives us an offer to take us to Ocho Rios for the same price as the driver who didn’t show. We take the fare.

‘Bunny’, our driver is a really chatty bloke. Like really. Our simple taxi ride is quickly becoming a tour. Rebecca and I have this horrible sensitivity to recognising this sort of behavior because it usually means there’s an expectation of a tip. Turns out it’s ‘Ash Wednesday’ as well, a public holiday, a kind of pre-Easter Easter. So there’s no-one around. Kingston has two or three large commercial buildings but’s that’s about it. There’s bit’s of Belize City in there I guess, and the waterfront, proposed for renovation, is nice enough. Beyond that there’s some concrete factories that produce the countries famous Appleton Rum and Red Stripe Beer. There’s some slums, very grid like, plenty of corrugated iron fencing and suspicious characters around. Pimped out cheap asian cars with massive stereos boom past.

‘Any problems with crime here?’ I ask Bunny

‘Some.. but you know, it’s like any city. But Kingston is safe. You can walk around here at any time of day with your backpack and nobody gonna bodder you’ ..

Unlikely I think. We make several stops along the way. One so Bunny can change some money, another so he can get fuel and another so he can go get some breakfast. He buys us some beers as well. It’s only 10:30am but they go down well. We’re tipping for sure.

The Taino people, indigenous to these parts, and Cuba as well, were all but wiped out by the Spanish and successive English settlements. The Spanish, custodians from the late 1400’s up until the 1655 left their mark in most notably ‘Spanish Town’ in which Bunny takes us whizzing through. There’s a heritage square, completely void of tourists and in serious need of renovation but nice enough. It’s a dangerous place so we’re not favorable to walking around. Both the Spanish and English brought in slaves from Africa to work profitable sugar plantations up until 1834 when slavery was abolished. Bunny flies us past one of the first free settlements in Jamaica.

The roads become windy and we follow the river through narrow gorges of surrounding mountains. It’s stunning scenery; dense jungle, bamboo and fast-flowing water. As we approach the highlands there’s small villages around Bauxite mines and coffee plantations. Two industries dominated by Japanese investment and ownership. The rich red soil of the mines, the dense green of the forests and the rich blue of the sky is a beautiful contrast. There’s sugar cane and banana plantations and the small communities look friendly and we pass some amazing smells wafting from grills converted from old oil barrels.

That all changes by the time we hit Ochos Rios. Resorts barge into the landscape and those horrible shopping plazas with those ‘fun-park for adults’ type theme restaurants appear as well, in desperate need of renovation or at least a coat of paint. There’s a cruise ship in today so there’s a bunch of folks walking the promenade, fighting off local touts.

Our hotel is just beyond the downtown tourist district of Ocho Rios so we get a glimpse of real downtown Jamaica. Markets are generally a terrific indication of what to expect and typically it’s buzzing. Plenty of people walking around, lots of traffic, music blaring, people shouting, lots of **** for sale on the side of the road. It’s kind of an instant calm as soon as we turn into Hibiscus Lodge. We’re early so can’t check in for another few hours but our jaws drop as we glance through reception to the view out the back. Perched atop the cliff-face, Hibiscus Lodge take stage over a breath-taking view of the Caribbean. Wander out to the restaurant and it’s a sheer drop to the bright blue ocean below. Maybe 600 meters out the water goes dark blue where the reef wall ends. Between here and there the serenity is destroyed by the Cool Runnin party boat, full of tourists engaged in synchonised, directed dancing.

We take a walk into the streets and almost immediately I’m bumping fists with a local guy on a bike riding next to us..
‘Yo where you from man..’
‘Australia! All right! So you know I got you right…anything you need man, weed, coke.. I’m your guy.. what’s your name?’
‘Alright.. I’m Amon..’
‘Ok .. we’re fine.. thanks’

We get maybe 3 more of these guys before we even hit the tourist strip. Then there’s ladies across the other side of the street, out the front of their trinket shops.

‘Hey! HEEEEEY! Shoppin? Come over!’
‘Braid your hair lady?’

It’s not unlike the usual stuff we’ve experienced world over but it’s next level here. And the shady characters look really shady. Grills in their teeth, dark glasses and filthy clothes. The tourist strip is nothing really. A Burger King, a KFC, a few shabby trinket shops, and some bars you’d only walk into if you had a suicide wish. We make a break for the beach.

‘Goin to the beach?’
‘Wanna taxi to a better beach?’
‘No thanks’
<incoherent mumbling>

You gotta pay about 2 bucks to even get through the gate to the beach, which is actually pretty beautiful, so worth it.. It’s this nice little cove tucked between the ferry port and 5 star hotel. There’s roped off sections for swimming and a crumbling old jetty from which boat tours leave from. A bunch of local ladies, all wearing shower caps loll about in the shallows shouting to each other. It’s Jamaican English but it might as well be French. They all cheer when momma get’s on the back of a jet-ski and hurtles around the bay in semi-circle laps. There’s a great local cafe just off the beach where you can get a chicken sandwich for about a dollar fifty. We enjoyed it out the front of the cafe, chilling out to some Dennis Brown.

Our hotel restaurant served up some delicious jerk chicken and rice. A true highlight. Given it could be enjoyed over that stunning vista we ate mostly at the hotel. Plus it wasn’t overly recommended to be wandering too far at night time. We ventured out once or twice to bring back a pizza from a local shop but that’s about it. Every night the bar across the road would pump out the angry reggaeton and one night I heard gunshots and squealing tyres. I was tryi
ng to count the positives of the situation but I was struggling. The demographic of foreigners here is vastly retirees. People who have been coming here for 20 years. They spent most of their time stoned by the pool. Tattooed with Jamaican flags and wrapped in home-made marijuana leaf sarongs. We didn’t really fit in here. There’s no backpacker/traveller demographic to speak of. Everything’s priced at the vacationer. Including the tours which were a bit thin on the appeal. Toboggan ride, horse ride along the beach, party-boats. That sort of thing.

In the end we began counting the days until we could leave. There was nothing for us to do, and we simply wandering the streets enduring the constant hassle was unrewarding; it was simply impossible to form any sort of connection. There’s a terrible ambivalence in customer service as well that does nothing to make you feel welcome. It was clear we weren’t enjoying our time in Ochos Rios and were skeptical that the resort town of Montego Bay would be any better.

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