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Learning about Jamaica -- and from each other

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Goldscheider
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2004

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- In our zeal to dive into our Jamaican adventure, Josh and I rushed through customs and headlong into my first embarrassing, if minor, snag. He let me live it down, but not for a day or two.

This was to be an intergenerational buddy trip. My fantasy was teaching my 12-year-old son the ways of cheap travel, avoiding tourist clichs, and soaking up local ways. His fantasies were all about five-star suites and first-class everything.

Lesson one was to pack everything for a fortnight into two carry-on day packs. Only after we smugly glided through passport control and customs did I find out that currency conversion in Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport takes place in the baggage claim area. So while passengers with large suitcases eased into cabs, we were petitioning bemused officials in a small office to let us back into the airport to get a few Jamaican dollars.

Lesson two was Josh's to give: Slow down. He compared my gait to that of ''a freaking super runner." I regard walking as basic transportation, not necessarily as an opportunity just to amble. But adjusting my pace was easy as we were enveloped by the tropical heat New Englanders like me start to crave soon after the first golden maple leaf hits the ground.

The Sandhurst Hotel was a great landing spot for what was to be a vacation combining urban exploration with lazing on the beach. We would eat in neighborhood restaurants, discover side streets, write in our journals, and journey across the island.

The contrasts between those who have a lot and those who have next to nothing are extreme here, and they mingle in popular culture as well as in the street. The roughest slums like Trenchtown are glorified in the music of Jamaica's most famous ambassador, Bob Marley, who died of brain cancer in 1981. His ability to give voice to the aspirations of the poor made him globally loved. So there is something slightly odd about hearing the social commentary rife in reggae lyrics (''Dem belly full but we're hungry. A hungry mob is an angry mob.") on the radio interspersed with hourly updates on the status of Air Jamaica flights. I had to wonder what tiny percent of the listening audience cares about the comings and goings of the elite on any given day.

People I asked, though, including Raymond Douglas, the manager at Sugar Daddy's restaurant, who hasn't flown for three years, insisted the regular drumbeat of information about delays and on-time arrivals is much valued.

''It keeps you abreast in case your friends are coming or going," Douglas said.

Marley's house is one of the island's most frequented tourist attractions. His widow, Rita Marley, maintains an office there but spends most of her time in Ghana. The tour includes a film and a replica of the Trenchtown shack out of which Bob Marley started selling records as a young man. The herb garden shows his affinity for medicinal plants. The Cannabis sativa herb he is most closely associated with is represented by only a sprig.

The city's main shopping and commercial district has decamped to New Kingston, about a mile in from the sea. It's a sterile agglomeration of high-rise hotels and fast-food joints. Old Kingston, however, which drapes itself around William Grant Park, is vibrant. Vendors, hawkers, purveyors, mongers, merchants with booths, and merchants who spread their wares on the sidewalk give the place a sense of resolute purpose. Most activity there is devoted to the exchange of money and commodities.

A great Kingston day trip is the passenger ferry to Port Royal. It leaves from the wharves, a couple of blocks from the national museum. Tourist literature describes Port Royal as, in its day, ''the wickedest city on Earth," because it was a haven for buccaneers who plundered the fleets departing from the Spanish Main.

Port Royal and Boston were the two largest English cities in the Americas during the late 17th century. But Port Royal's glory was cut short by an earthquake in 1692 that killed 2,000 residents. It was built on a sandy peninsula, and the sea washed away half its buildings. It kept reinventing itself during the 18th and 19th centuries to perform various functions in the British Empire. The museum has a smattering of items from all these periods.

After taking in the fort and wandering around town, we had a relaxed fresh fish dinner in a sidewalk restaurant near the dock. Josh and I went down to the water after the meal and watched as a pair of dolphins wended their way along the town's coastline.

''That was really cool. I've never seen dolphins before," Josh told me on the boat back across the channel. To him, the museum had been ''kinda boring."

When we were ready for the beach, Josh and I culled our luggage, leaving everything but essentials in a locked room at the hotel. There is a serviceable web of station wagons, vans, and small buses connecting every important town and village on the island, each of which has a staging area where vehicles depart, though not on any fixed schedule. You won't be treated like a tourist on these conveyances and you'll rub elbows, shoulders, and thighs with everyday Jamaicans. The route to Negril goes mostly inland through Spanish Town, Mandeville, and Savanna-la-Mar, where you change vehicles for the last hour.

It's a full day on the road and a great way to see and experience the country. One of Josh's lasting impressions was the Motown cassette tape the driver chose as the soundtrack for our journey.

''American music is everywhere," he observed.

Other options for traveling on the island include arranging for a private car or renting one. Neither will bust most budgets.

In Negril, we stayed in one of those treasures one is reluctant to mention lest they become overrun. The Negril Yoga Centre has roots in Negril's recent past when it was still a remote beauty spot where only travelers with more time than money ventured.

The Yoga Centre is within walking distance to town and offers clean rooms and reasonably priced custom-cooked meals, a communal kitchen for guests to cook their own food, and an outdoor sink and clotheslines for guests' laundry. There is no TV, a downer for Josh (''This is like a writer's retreat or something," was his comment.) but a huge upper for me. It does have a shady tropical garden. A morning yoga class is included in the price of a room.

Across the road, literally 90 seconds away, Negril's 7-mile sandy beach unfolds. Sunset happens over the water. You can take long walks and, if you choose, go parasailing or scuba diving, sip multicolored drinks, or go out for an elegant meal. For cheap eats, try Niah's patties. They're cooked over a grill in one of the few sandy vacant lots along the beach.

Four days quenched our appetite for utter relaxation. Back in the big city, we spent a couple of days searching out bookstores where we could browse local authors, attending a group poetry reading at the university, and catching some more tourist destinations like Devon House, the hub of a 19th-century plantation.

The Sandhurst felt almost like home by now. The desk clerk greeted us by name. During our second week, Josh would have been in school. On the beach, he read the book he had promised his teacher he would read.

''I'd rather go to Jamaica than go to school," was his comment, allowing that ''seeing how people live in other parts of the world" could be considered educational. He did spend a day as a guest in a Jamaican school where he noticed the discipline is strict and children ''respect the teacher more than American kids."

Of course, I learned as much from him about being young and impressionable in the world as I hope he learned from me about the difference between tourism and traveling.

Eric Goldscheider is a freelance writer in Amherst.

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