UVWXYZ: Closing Jamaica


I just ran out of time.

June came and so did the pack out preparation, then the packers, then the mad last minute rush of things to do before our exit.  By the end of June I was in London, suddenly literally (and figuratively) thousands of miles away from Jamaica.  At the end of August we arrived in Serbia and have been busy reversing all the actions that kept us so occupied during the last few weeks in Kingston. The weeks rolled by.  My blog has sat silent for an unbelievably long six months, as almost everything in my life has changed, and I still kept kicking the blogging can further and further down the road.  Anyone who has ever blogged will understand that it is hard to reignite a neglected blog.  Certainly part of the procrastination is pondering its value in the first place and whether it still serves me and the handful of people who read it.

I don’t have the motivation to finish the drafts for the end of the alphabet:  U is for Unsafe, W is for Watering Holes (bars), V is for Vendors, Y is for Yams, and Z is for Zion will probably remain unpublished.  But the exercise did serve me well, as it forced me to dig into some of what I had learned and experienced–good and bad– during what was a really unsettled and quite unhappy time in Jamaica.  I regret that things weren’t more generally positive , but now it seems that the reasons are less important than the need to move on and turn the page.  So here it is — the line — and a fresh start in a Belgrade.  Stay tuned!

T is for Tourist Paradise

I had a struggle trying to find somewhere stay for our first trip to Jamaica’s north coast back in September 2015.    This might sound surprising as Montego Bay is the north coast’s largest town and a major tourist destination with an international airport bringing tourists directly from the US, Europe and South America.    A new modern highway now cuts directly from Kingston on the south coast,  making the trip easier and faster than ever.  The new road connects seamlessly with the north coast highway, which dashes past giant signs for resort after resort, but little can be seen from the road. The resorts, palm trees and the beaches themselves are hidden away.  Most offer luxury at an all-inclusive price, which is a popular option for tourists, as it includes accommodation and all you can eat food and drink.   The problem is that is its very expensive.  Prices get cheaper in the rainy season, but even after substantial discounts for locals, $250/night for a “room only” package is considered a deal.  Prices typically go way higher than that.

Our first experience in Montego Bay was pretty much a disaster.  I had shunned the expensive resorts in favour of a mid-range hotel on the supposedly famous “hip strip” in town, hoping that while Robert was working, I could walk, shop a little and enjoy the town.   The hip strip was anything but hip, with nowhere to hang out and just vendors bugging me to buy things I didn’t want.  Worse, the whole area had a feel of decay with closed down hotels and not a lot going on.  Clearly the all-inclusive resorts with their captive clientele had taken a huge toll on the town.   I didn’t like the room they gave us and when they refused to move us to another in a hotel that was obviously not full,  we packed our bags and left.

We moved to a mid-range resort hotel within per diem and were suddenly in the world of mass tourism and package holidays.  The beach was beautiful, but only accessible to hotel guests, and I wandered around a little watching the new arrivals relax into their new tropical surroundings.   One young woman stood beaming.  She literally grinned from ear-to-ear.  I smiled back and said, “You look happy.”    “Yes,” she said.  I’m in Jamaica!”  Suddenly I saw a person who had saved all year to come and who had probably escaped from somewhere cold and urban to feel the warmth of the Jamaican sun on her face.  I felt  ashamed that I had been so grouchy at my experience to date, and resolved to enjoyed the privilege of being in a place that others may never have the opportunity to visit.  But the truth remained that mass tourism is not our cup of tea and the likelihood of returning to that resort was slim.

Montego Bay — an attractive resort beach open only to guests

On later much-needed trips out of Kingston, we turned to smaller, local hotels and struggled there also.  We kissed quite a few hotel frogs before we found our Prince in a privately-owned Negril development, which became our favourite spot.  There are charming, affordable places to be found with a local flavour.  It’s just been a little harder here to find them.  Security issues and bad roads have added to the struggle.  There are independent tourists and Jamaicans who are looking for quality bed and breakfast places at reasonable prices, but the fact remains that the tourist volumes come for the convenience, quality and security of the all-in resorts and that’s where the focus remains.

I do hope that places like downtown Montego Bay develop in the future.  Clearly the old days are not coming back, but I do see the opportunity for smaller, boutique hotels that offer an alternative to the resort experience and widen the type of tourists who visit.  Mobay could be the artisan capital of Jamaican with cool, independently-owned shops and businesses.  The city center needs redevelopment though, and that looks like it’s not happening any time soon.

Jamaica has a reputation as a tourist paradise, and for good reason.    We discovered the pricey but stunningly beautiful, plantation-style  Half Moon Resort pretty late in our stay.  The last minute discovery has been kind of a blessing for the pocket book, as we surely would have returned if there was time.  I liked Half Moon so much more than the modern resorts we encountered.   There are plenty of beautiful beaches, romantic palm trees and lots of very attractive resort hotels in Jamaica but, in our limited time and experience here, its not been an easy fit for us, but we did manage to find our sweet spot in the end.

The beautiful Half Moon resort.  This I will miss!

S is for Scotch Bonnet Peppers

Everyone knows about Jamaica’s world famous Jerk chicken.  But not everyone knows that Jerk gets it spicy heat from Jamaica’s famous scotch bonnet peppers.  They get their name from their distinctive bonnet shape and impart an unique flavour above and beyond just their fiery heat.  We’ve learned to freeze them and pop one into stews or curries, as an instant way to kick up the temperature in so many dishes.

There are also a lot of Jamaican sauces and relishes that use scotch bonnet pepper as a main ingredient, especially the ubiquitous Grace Yellow and Green scotch bonnet pepper sauces.  I find the yellow one too hot and sweet, but the green one I am just addicted to… I keep waiting for the flavour to get old, but it doesn’t…I add it to everything!  Well, I haven’t put it on my morning cornflakes yet, but I’m not ruling it out!  I’m going to have to pack a case in our stuff before we packout .

R is for Rum Tour

The first thing that you notice at the Appleton Rum factory is the smell of fermentation.  It reminded me of our days standing on South American docks, where spilled grain unloaded from cargo ships was left to rot in the baking sun.  Its not a pleasant smell, but one that reminded us that we were about to begin a tour of an active distillery and learn a little about how Jamaica’s most famous rum is made.  This is really the only organised, touristy thing we’ve done in Jamaica, but everyone recommended it for the free-flowing rum, the hospitality, and the copious amounts of food they share to keep you from passing out in a drunken heap!  The party started early at around 9am with a drink steward handing out rum punch and sandwiches on the bus at the start of our 2.5 hour trip from Kingston to St Elizabeth Parish on the island’s south coast.  9am was a bit early for me to start on the rum!

The approach to the Appleton estate is through a fertile valley where they grow acres of cane sugar, right next to the factory that distills the rum today.  Watching workers in the fields, it was not hard to imagine a very similar scene being played out two hundred years ago, back in the dark days of Jamaica’s colonial past.

Little of the dark side is covered by the tour and the plantation house has long gone, but a few artifacts remain on the estate from past days: vintage delivery trucks, hand-carved grinding stones, and this little donkey who demonstrated how cane juice was once extracted:

I’d already had a little sip of rum-laced coffee by the time we got to the donkey.  Standing there in the blazing hot sun, I was immediately dizzy and glad that I didn’t drink anything else on the bus.  Next we moved onto his modern counterpart—large industrial cane grinders and storage bins where the juice is extracted and stored before move on to the distillers.

Next door in the distillery building it was burning hot, which is probably why I forgot to take photos.  Here the juice is boiled and, via a condenser, the steam is collected as clear alcohol.  The rum then goes on to be stored in barrels to age.

After the rum production tour, we went inside to learn more about the artistry of rum-making and to taste different blends. This, of course, was the best bit, especially as we had already had two rounds of carbohydrate-heavy meals on which it could land. I found the youngest rum undrinkable — rot gut, really — but its the cheapest and understandably the most popular. The vintage blends of more than 12 years, were more for sipping and too cloying for me. Fortunately, I found I liked the regular reserve the most, the rum that we have been drinking all along.

They then served more food and more rum before we staggered to the bus.  Not everyone had been as conservative as me, and enthusiastic, drunken karaoke belted out from the back of the bus for the ride home.  They had a good time and so did we, although I probably had a better morning the following day!  Appleton did a great job of hosting and I highly recommend the tour if you ever come to Jamaica.*

*At the current time of writing the distillery is closed to the public until November 2017 for extensive renovations.


Q is for Queen’s English

When I first moved to the US,  I noticed that many place names and map markings were British.  They would often pop up in unexpected places, often with characters in stark contrast to the British places that I knew by the same name. Here in Jamaica its been a similar history lesson, not only of place names but also the appearance of British customs and language in day-to-day interactions.  Jamaica was a British colony for over 300 years, so this is hardly surprising,  but there are not many other remnants of British colonization, aside from old churches, ruins of old sugar mills and some former plantations.  Most new construction developments are more American in style and Jamaica’s close proximity to the States means that much American culture has been absorbed in recent years. However pockets of British culture still preside.  Here are a few I see:

British terminology:  One our first day in Kingston a taxi cab that pulled up next to us: “licensed Hackney Cab,” it said.  The low-riding, beaten up sedan was a far cry from the original Hackney Cabs that I knew from history class, which were Victorian horse-drawn cabs, but its easy to see why the name remains.  Little British expressions like this crop up unexpectedly all the time.

Politeness:  Driving on Jamaican streets can be pretty aggressive and there are plenty of bad drivers, especially the aforementioned, dreaded taxi cabs who we plan on avoiding by spotting their red licence plates from afar.  But there is also an equal amount of generous, polite drivers who wait to let you out of a tricky intersection with a smile and a friendly wave forward.  Graciousness counts here….as does formal politeness.  Titles such as Mr. and Mrs. are still used frequently, and its considered very bad form to communicate without saying “Good Morning” and “How are you?” first.

The Royals:  The Royal family have made frequent trips to Jamaica over the years, and nostalgic black and white photographs pop up around the island.  There are churches, buildings and a few streets that bear their names, and most Jamaicans seem to generally feel positive about the Queen and Jamaica’s membership of the Commonwealth, now that she is no longer their patriarch.

All of this, of course, does not address so many terms and place names that are uniquely Jamaican:  Burnt Ground, Grateful Hill, Lucky Valley, Sooky Gal, Retreat Beach and Bloody Bay, to name a few.  What stories they must hold?!

P is for Patois

Jamaican Patios is perhaps best illustrated by example. If you’re not familiar,  the video above gives a little idea of what its all about.  When the interview starts, I think she speaks clearly in an heavily-accented English, but as the interview proceeds and she gets more angry, the dialect becomes heavier and its harder for me to understand, although she rarely loses me completely.  I’m not sure why the video’s poster called it “funny,” as the subject is very serious.  I imagine because of the animated way that she speaks, which becomes increasingly “crazy.”  But I find her style typical of very agitated Jamaicans who are speaking passionately about something, she just holds her arms awkwardly, as she is unfamiliar with how to speak into a microphone, and the camera angle accentuates that.

When I first arrived, I found it fairly easy to understand colleagues at work, but only when they were speaking directly to me.  If they turned their head in a meeting to consult with another Jamaican, my comprehension often dropped to only about 10%, as they would switch to the local lilt.  Recognizable English words would jump out from a tangle of Patois and, although I would know generally what was being discussed, it was often hard to make out the actual meaning.   Some staff, particularly those who interact less with Americans — gardeners, cleaners, workmen –have always been trickier to understand.  I still struggle today, although I am vaguely aware of improvement.  There are so many different levels of dialect all the way to full blown Patois, and the two years I have been here my ear has adjusted somewhat, but it is very hard to measure how far.  Its quite different to learning a new vocabulary in another language, although if I had applied some of the structure of language and vocabulary learning, I might have gotten further along.  I also wonder how well I’m understood, although I presume most Jamaicans fair better than me, just through continual exposure to American/British English on TV and radio.

To my non-Jamaican readers:  How well did you understand the woman in the video?

O is for Out of Many, One People

Before I came to Jamaica, I was really only aware that most Jamaicans came originally as slaves from West Africa, although there were some white Jamaicans of British origin who roots can be traced back to those dark days.  However, I had no idea of how many other nationalities and ethnicities had come into the mix.

After independence from the British in 1962, Jamaica had a new flag and a new motto: “Out of Many, One People.”   In the little less than two years I’ve been here, I’ve come to understand a bit more of the complexities of why they picked that slogan.  I won’t attempt to write much on the sensitive subject of racial history and harmony, but a short history statement might be interesting to some:

Taíno Indians, also known as the Arawaks, were the original aboriginal inhabitants of Xamayca until the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th Century.    Western diseases wiped out the Arawaks, and today all that remains of them are a few genes and some rock paintings.  The country remained under Spanish rule until 1655, when it came under British possession, and Jamaica remained as a British colony until its independence fifty years ago.  During British rule, ships brought slaves in from Ghana until the early 1800s when political awareness in the UK started to reject the concept of slavery.  As it became harder to bring enforced labour from Africa, large numbers of Indian and Chinese workers were brought instead.  Later, immigrants from Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon fled the Middle East for a better life in Jamaica in the early 20th century, many of whom were Christians escaping persecution at the hands of Ottoman Muslims.   I had no idea that Jamaica was such a melting pot.  Interestingly, the pot literally includes a fushion of cuisines too:  curried goat from India, Jamaican patties from the UK, callalloo from West Africa, and there’s plenty of Chinese restaurants in Kingston.

So, do I see it as a harmonious blend?  I know that many don’t and tell me there’s plenty of racial prejudice and race-based economic disparity to go around.  Although I have no doubt that is true,  my personal impression has been pretty positive.  My Jamaican colleagues at work come in many skin tones and include ethnic European, West African, Indian and Chinese – or a mix of all of the above – much like their American counterparts.  Out of Many, One People may be a work in progress, but this is also true everywhere else in the world.  We all still need to work on getting along.


N is for Negril


Point Village, Negril

Next month we are heading back to Negril for our sixth and final visit.  The small resort town has checked all the right boxes for us, more so than anywhere else on the island. Old school fans of Negril say that it has grown beyond recognition and that its former laid back, hippie style has been replaced with large, modern resorts that suck all the charm out of the place.   Although I never knew it in the old days, I can see evidence of both Negrils.    Hippie Negril is still there in West End with cute little cook shops, tourists shacks and bakeries selling hash brownies.  It is looking a little run down now, and the cars roar past on the sidewalk-less road, making it hard to stop and look around.  But there are some pretty nice cliff-top hotels too, where we’ve considered staying.  The new Negril, situated on a long stretch of its famous beach, has expensive, high-end resorts with butler service, tropical cabanas, lounge chairs and destination wedding facilities.     But for us the attraction has been neither.

The Negril we discovered was a resort village with 200+ small,  individually-owned units on the north end of seven mile beach, just past the luxury resorts.  The development is private and over twenty years old, and clearly had maintenance issues going on.  We liked it immediately, even though it was a little frayed around the edges.  But in the last year the management association has really worked to fix up the swimming pool, paint were its needed, and tear down the old buildings.  It just a short time, it has smartened it up quite a bit.


A flash back to the old Point Village when we first arrived. As always, I had to have a wander around the old and abandoned. This is all gone now.


..as have these.  There were some terrific paintings of local scenes.  I was actually there when they tore them down and am kicking myself that I didn’t ask if I could keep one.

Point Village has three, small sandy beaches that are clean and quiet.  There are no vendors to bug you.  The water is pretty and the swimming is easy.  We like the coastline very much.


The quiet and pretty beach at point village has lounge chairs, shade and clean water for swimming. I can drag a chair under a tree in read in peace.



Walking around the well maintained  grounds with plenty of flowers and trees.  Depending on the time of year, you might be able to pick some mangos too…

The units there are also priced reasonably.  For about $125/night you can find a 1-bedroom or studio unit.  They all have small kitchens were we can reheat food we have brought from Kingston and not spend a fortune eating out three times a day.  As they are individually owned, they vary a great deal in quality.  We’ve been a few times to the same one now, which has become a favourite with its sliding glass doors, shaded balcony, and views straight out to sea.  Opposite is Booby Island, where we watch the little boats chugging back and forth with a handful of tourists on a visit.  Most special of all is the spectacular sunsets every evening, right from our balcony:

Negril sunset

You can’t beat this…

Negril sunset

…except maybe with this!

A short walk away is the beginning of seven mile beach.  Getting there involves walking through the nudist resort of Hedonism II, where everyone is letting it all hang out — most literally, I’m afraid!  You get used to it though, and we just head through with sunglasses and a purpose, and you end up at the north end of Sandals resort and the beginning of miles of sandy walking.  Unusually, Negril doesn’t allow the hotels to section off the beach to non-residents, so its possible to walk the entire length if you wish.  This is an enormous bonus.  Most large resorts take the best beaches and then stop public access.  I’m so glad that the Negril township had the good sense to realize that open access to the long expanse of their beautiful beach is an important reason why people come.

Once through the nudists of Hedonism,  the resort of world of Sandals appears….

.. and the diversions of cocktails, beach chairs, music and people watching are a short walk away.  But when you get tired of all that, you can leave it behind.

Then its nice to walk back in time to capture the evening sunset from your balcony or watch the crabs on their evening walkabout down by the rock pool. I know many think we live a glamorous life because we access to places like this, but this is not everyday life.  The more challenges present where you live, the more you need to get away once in a while.  I wish it was closer, as its a four hour drive each way,  but  I’m so glad we found this place and could continue to visit regularly during our stay in Jamaica. This is probably the place that I will miss the most.


M is for Mangroves


Fishing in the Mangroves near Portland Bight

Mangrove swamps are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when people think about the Jamaican coastline, which is famous for its long stretches of idyllic sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. But, they are very much part of the Caribbean.  In Jamaica, mangroves swamps or forests are present all over the island, with the highest concentration on the South coast, probably because it is the least developed.

Swirling with bugs, the murky waters of mangroves aren’t always the most attractive places for tourists to visit, but they are extremely important to local ecosystems in so many ways.  Mangroves protect the coastline from erosion, provide habitats and nurseries for wildlife, and food sources for birds and fish.  If sustainably managed, there’s plenty to go around, and they provide a livelihood for fishermen too.  I personally love visiting them just to see the wildlife.  (Though the thought of crocodiles lurking somewhere does freak me out a bit.)


Buggy haven for life


Yet, as in many other places, Jamaican mangroves are under peril from a plethora of threats.  Most commonly, they are cleared for construction projects including housing and hotels;  I have personally seen dredgers in action, pulling up the mangrove roots in preparation for the expansion of a new upscale resort near Montego Bay.   In poor areas the trees are harvested as a source of charcoal production.   Near Kingston particularly, pollutants from factories and farming create a toxic environment that kills the resident wildlife and oil pollution kills the mangrove’s roots.   As mangroves deteriorate, remaining coastlines become more vulnerable to other threats such as hurricanes.  The knock-on impact of all of this is devastating to the mangrove’s delicate ecostructure and, unfortunately, their fate reminds me in so many ways of coral reefs.


The distinctive roots of mangrove trees rise above the waterline.  Mangrove roots need oxygen so they grow vertically to ensure they get their fill.

Some of my favourite days here have been watching the birds and fish surprise me, and trying to capture them with my camera.  Here are a few favourites:




L is for Lighting Up


I often like to walk around our neighbourhood. “Up the hill and down the hill”, I call it, as reference to a way of getting my walking time done. When I first arrived, I tried to find a route to do my usual loop configuration and it failed miserably,  as the traffic after work made walking unsafe on busy streets without sidewalks. Once I figured out that a simple “there and back” walk on quieter roads would be more successful, the evening walks took shape. I am constantly warned that walking anywhere in this city, at any time, is a danger, yet I continue to do so because I feel largely safe walking where I do.

I see other regular exercisers too: the friendly rasta guy, the group of chatty moms, and solo joggers who come and go. They say good evening, I smile back and–with some basic awareness and precautions– things feel pretty safe.

The streets near our home have some beautiful houses with gardeners, guards and housekeepers who take care of them.  In the evening when I am usually walking uphill, its the time when the household staff and construction workers are heading downhill to the bus.  Most of them are smoking a little ganja on their way down to relax and change focus, I’m sure. Its a very subtle thing. Often I don’t see anything in their hands, but the joint is there, cupped away from the breeze. Its only when they pass by that my nose follows the drift of smoke and I head up into their trails which can take minutes to disperse.  On one guy’s tail is another and the next ganja cloud. Some days its like Woodstock heading up that hill!  I don’t mind the smell and it does leave a chill vibe in the air.  At the end of the day we all need to do a little chilling out, right?!