Our American Airlines flight glides in over the end of the runway at Sangster International Airport and executes a perfect touchdown. The engines reverse thrust to slow our aircraft, pushing us and making us grab our books and iPods to keep them from sliding off of the seats. As we swing onto the taxiway I look out of our window, watching white egrets eyeing us curiously from the swampy water outside the fence guarding the airport’s perimeter and seeing tall grass growing up through cracks in the pavement. We have arrived in Jamaica.
Cindy and I are taking a weeklong break from sailing to vacation in Negril, a trip we planned far in advance of taking off to go sailing and one we did not want to miss out on. We’ve traveled to the Rock House resort for the last three years, meeting up with friends we’ve made there and spending some good quality time laying in the sun, drinking rum cocktails and eating far too much. It started as part of our “get to know the Caribbean’ plan and it’s become part of our annual travels now.
After retrieving our bags and passing through immigration and customs, we meet up with our pre-arranged cab driver, Joe Cool. Joe provides taxi service all over the island and we’ve used him for the last three trips rather than relying on the slow, meandering shuttle provided by the resort. Joe’s business card and airport placard naturally feature a picture of Snoopy swagged out in his Joe Cool shades. I’m pretty certain he hasn’t paid any royalties for the use of this image. We leave the airport and enter the orchestrated chaos that is Montego Bay, Jamaica’s second largest city.
The roads in Jamaica, though paved and fairly modern, are narrow and crowded. It’s a little past noon and the streets are thick with cars and people. Vendors walk down the roads centerline, hawking sodas, candy, newspapers and tchotchkies to drivers stopped at intersections. People pull over to park alongside the curb, apparently oblivious to fact that this forces traffic to divert around them. Parking lots, if they exist at all, are dusty, potholed affairs where cars park at haphazard angles. Pedestrians walk in the streets or cross the road wherever it suits them and expect the traffic to avoid them.
The interesting thing is, it does. Cars weave in and out of oncoming traffic, drivers jockeying for position and determining right of way by fiat. Cars swerve to avoid foot traffic if possible only stopping if there’s no other way. As a certified OCD engineer, I can’t imagine functioning like this but here it works. There’s no honking, no cursing, no extended middle fingers. Everyone seems to understand that this is just the way things work and they are all in this together.
Another thing that strikes me is the lack of the common architectural aesthetic that I grew up with in the States. In the US, building codes and community standards enforce a certain sameness to our surroundings. Jamaica looks like urban planning involves the use of a roulette wheel and a pair of dice. Modern concrete buildings stand alongside shacks constructed from scrap lumber, tree trunks and rusted pieces of corrugated metal. Strip malls butt up against vendor stalls constructed from fragments of scavenged or stolen materials. A staid looking gray Government building sits beside shops painted in faded but still jaunty Caribbean pastels.
Still, everywhere the natural beauty of the island shows through. The hillsides, fed by heavy annual rainfalls, are lush and green and everywhere flowers burst from the landscape. Tumbles of red and white bougainvillea and hibiscus cascade down the cracked and broken cinderblock walls that separate ramshackle residences from the chaos of the streets. Sapphire blue waters edge up alongside the highway where the roadway meets the sea.
Our driver explains to us that there are two kinds of houses in Jamaica…concrete and wooden. Everyone dreams of owning a concrete house since these can be expected to survive the hurricanes that periodically hit Jamaica. These types of houses are expensive, however, and it is not uncommon for people to take years completing their concrete home. Whenever they manage to set aside some money, they make a little more progress on the house. It is not unusual for it to take multiple generations before such a house is finished. This helps explain a particular large half-completed house that we have passed on our way from Montego Bay to Negril on each of our trips. The driver explains this house has been under construction for 25 years.
Most Jamaicans live in wooden houses that are built from whatever scrap materials they can scrounge up. Our driver explains that many people who can’t afford their own piece of land rent one from a landlord and build a wooden house on it. If their landlord evicts them, they will call up family and friends to help the lift the house onto the back of a truck and move it to a new location. The driver tells us that the home’s owner must provide a sufficient amount of over-proof rum to get the moving crew good and happy before they will move the house. I try to imagine how smoothly this process could possibly work.
We reach the town of Lucea, the halfway point on our drive to Negril. It’s Friday afternoon and people from the surrounding villages are streaming into town to shop and socialize. Traffic snakes along at a glacial pace as we weave around the pedestrians clogging the street. Our driver tells us that most Jamaicans shop in stores owned by Chinese people. We ask how the local Jamaicans feel about this and he explains that it’s not by design, the Chinese are simply better business people than the locals. If a local opens a store, people will buy on credit and then never pay. The business eventually goes under. The Chinese storeowners only deal in cash and work with each other to get volume discounts. It’s sad that in their own country the locals can’t compete with foreigners and we wonder if there is any way to teach them good business principals. But the cultural norms that run counter to good business practices are hard to overcome.
Our driver points to a clock in a building at the center of town and tells us it has an interesting history. The clock was originally intended to go to St. Lucia, a small island nation in the Lesser Antilles chain several hundred miles from Jamaica. Lucea had been known at Santa Lucia when Jamaica was originally settled by the Spaniards. The English anglicized it to Lucea when they took the island from the Spaniards. Apparently, the captain of the ship got confused and unloaded the clock at Lucea. The townspeople liked the clock so well they paid for it and kept it. A German expatriate living in Lucea donated land and built a clocktower shaped like a Prussian helmet to house it. The clock has been running since it was installed in 1817.
We continue down the 2-lane highway that our driver informs us was built in the 90’s with help from the Japanese government. The old highway, built by the US, is only used by the locals that live along it. We pass through small ramshackle villages, their roadsides teaming with school children in uniforms and old rasta men with long woven gray beards and their dreadlocks shoved up under colorful knitted hats that seem far too hot for the climate.
This is the last of the real Jamaica that we’ll see, as once we reach the resort everything will be built and (mostly) operated to western standards. It’s easy to think that maybe the locals here have it right, that worrying about making sure everything is landscaped and manicured and functions in an orderly manner may not be worth the price it exacts. But this laissez-faire attitude has its own drawbacks. Poverty and unemployment is high and corruption in government circles is rampant. Along the roadside, billboards decry the cost in jobs and investment from graft and urge an end to payola in the music industry. Then again, nobody in Jamaica is getting nasty letters from their homeowner’s association complaining about the weeds in their flowerbeds.