So, my mother recently got back from Jamaica. Born there, she’s planning on retiring there in a few short years. We got to reminiscing about the last time that I went to Jamaica with her, my wife and I as a part of the Morgan Family Reunion. Man, it was five years ago, nearly a lifetime ago since it was pre-kids for me. I got to digging around my old files and thought that I’d share a few lessons from that trip.

[Things that the tourist bureau won’t tell you. Plus, for no additional charge, a few warnings about the perils of traveling with your mother.]

Like any country, there are two Jamaicas: there is the open blue-skied, golden beached, frolicking natives and tourists (all to the soundtrack of Bob Marley tunes) Jamaica; and there is the Jamaica where the people actually live. The three job having, laid back populace who have better things to do than entertain tourists.

I will start by offering for your consumption the fact that MY MOTHER REALLY WANTS GRANDCHILDREN. I know, you have to ask yourself “why would I care about some guy I don’t know and his issues with his mother?” Well, in all probability, you wouldn’t. However, my mother, born in Jamaica, served not only as my tour guide, but also as sponsor (and by sponsor, I mean she offered to pay for the trip). Free is good, right? No, sometimes free has too high a price. The main drawback to doing any traveling with a parent, or for that matter spending too much time with them at all, is that they take the opportunity to remind you that as the oldest child you should be breeding. The problem being that even though my mom–one of seventeen–has 3 grandchildren already, she looks at my grandmother who has just over 180.

But let me get to the things you truly need to know when you travel to the “other” Jamaica.

1. MARIJUANA WILL FIND YOU. I’m not going to say that marijuana is the national flower or anything, because ostensibly, it is illegal. We spent a lot of the time in the country, the mountains outside of Montego Bay that you can see from the beaches. All I will say is that you don’t want to carelessly toss a match into any shrubbery unless you want to get a block party started. I will also say that “ganja” should not be rolled with two hands; nor should I be able to see your face every time you take a hit because your bud glows like a lighthouse.

Not to say that this is an issue only for those in the country.

We went to a concert (more on that in a minute). Let me repeat for you the vendor’s cry that you probably won’t hear at your next Celine Dion concert: “Popcorn. Peanuts. Ganja.” And if you think I’m kidding, which at the time I thought it was a joke, I did a double-take: the guy had little baggies tucked between each finger as he waved his hand around.

Some friends of mine who honeymooned down there, strictly on the tourist track, had this little story to tell. They took a paddle boat to lounge around on the sea for an afternoon. Before too long, another paddle boat came up along side them. The man inside, the “Cap’n”, wanted to make sure that they had some ganja for their trip. Say what you want, Jamaicans are all about customer service.

2. IF A GOOD CHUNK OF YOUR POPULACE IS UNEMPLOYED, POOR, AND HUNGRY, YOU MAY NOT WANT TO ANTAGONIZE THEM WITH NEW OBNOXIOUS LAWS AND TAXES. Or as I like to put it: THERE IS NO WAITING PERIOD FOR MACHETES. If you find yourself touring the country, you’ll notice that most people carry machetes. Do not be alarmed. Since most people work on farms, this is no different than a plumber revealing his butt crack: just a tool of the trade. However, as we observed while hanging out in Montego Bay, you can buy one in the middle of your argument and be chopping at a person in only a few minutes.

3. YOU CAN BE CHINESE AND HAVE A WEST INDIAN ACCENT. I know that may sound naive, but since he was the guy who sold the machete, he deserved mentioning. He looked like Bruce Lee and sounded like Bob Marley and found it annoying to have me standing there going “say something else” (watching him talk was hypnotic, but I couldn’t get him to say anything along the lines of “You killed my Teacher” or “I will avenge you” or anything else from a kung fu movie).

4. I AM NOT A FAN OF GOAT BELLY SOUP. I know what you’re wondering: are there any good ways to cook goat belly?. Jamaicans don’t let anything go to waste. To celebrate my visit with them, my family killed two goats and a cow, which meant that the whole community in the area was going to come out to join us.

5. [WARNING: USE OF A POSSIBLY OFFENSIVE WORD] IF YOUR BUS IS CALLED “ORIGINAL PECKA” … I don’t think you heard me … I said IF YOUR BUS IS CALLED “ORIGINAL PECKA”, AND YOU GET ON ANYWAY, YOU FORFEIT ALL RIGHTS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT THE DRIVER’S ANTICS. Said antics might explain the proliferation of abandoned cars alongside the road; totaled and burnt husks of cars stripped of anything of value or that could be used to repair another’s car.

6. SAND CHAFES. That was as close to a bad thing I could say about the beach. Is was either that or go with the “oh, gee, 80 degrees, clear blue skies, clear blue water, it’s hard being me” routine. Do not be alarmed if you notice that at the outdoor shower–placed for your convenience so that you can rinse off before walking around–there are people standing around, completely naked, with soap. My mother explained that when she was a kid, if it rained hard enough, you could find people outside with a wash cloth and soap.

Speaking of which, NUDE BEACHES AREN’T BAD. Ain’t no shame to my game. This came up as we were deciding which beach to go to. The only thing separating the nude beach from the regular beach was a rope dividing line. This lesson has one corollary: if your mother tries to tag along, nude beaches are just plain wrong. This also marked the point in the trip when me and my mother parted for a day or so.

7. BRING YOUR OWN TOILET PAPER. Jamaica is a tourist island. Therefore, most of the money and niceties go to the tourist areas first (at no time is this more apparent than after Hurricane Gilbert struck the island. The tourist parts were up and running in no time, but the homes of the people who lived there, especially in the country, were still being rebuilt three years later). I tell you this to inform you that unless you are at a resort, bring your own toilet paper. Assuming you can even find a public toilet, there is no guarantee that it will be well stocked. Plus, having your own supply will guarantee you making friends out of total strangers.

8. BLOCK PARTIES GOOD. CONCERTS BEWARE. A party can spring up wherever a person has a stack of speakers. It’s kind of like a pitch-in. Someone brings music. Someone brings food. Someone brings drinks. Someone brings ganja. But the concert we went to (S–fest, for the sake of this blog) is not something for the uninitiated to go to alone. Pickpockets abound (I don’t ask much from my pickpockets, you know, just pick and move on. Not half pick, drop what you get, and crowd me. Not that I carried much of the Monopoly money that is used for currency, nor do I keep it in my back pocket. I do give props to the pick pocket who continually bumped into someone, with each slowly unzipping their fanny pack).

Let me tell you, most of the acts were okay, simply background music while people danced, slept on cardboard “Reggae beds” waiting for a later act, or smoked–here’s a shock–ganja. The last guy, however, had the catch phrase “More Fire”. At no point do the words “more” and “fire” belong in the same sentence at a concert. Granted, I thought rap concerts had a lot of instructions (“throw your hands in the air” “wave them like you just don
’t care”), but “more fire” apparently meant light anything near you. We were at an outdoors performance–though I hear this does go on at the indoor ones–also but people were lighting their shirts on fire and twirling them. They set ablaze trash cans. One guy–I’m positive that the amount of ganja smoked by this time in no way played a part of his dilemma–grew frustrated at his attempts to light a block of ice on fire. On the upside, I’ve never seen a more laid back group of vandals and arsonists.

9. YOU COULDN’T PAY ME TO DO THE TOURIST THING. Okay, I won’t lie to you: 1) given enough money, you could pay me to do just about anything; and 2) resorts are a great place to go to be catered to and pampered. You just don’t get a taste of the true Jamaican experience. A cousin got a few of us into one of those tourist resorts. (By “got” I mean she had a friend on the “inside” so we dressed up like tourists and snuck in a side door. And for the record, there is nothing funnier–Chinese guy with West Indian accent aside–than a Jamaican trying to speak with a polished American accent) . Besides the fact that they are shuttled everywhere (missing out on true taxi and bus rides–a la “Original Pecka”) they miss the true Jamaican culture. No Jamaicans I know eat anything remotely called “Rasta Pasta” (I had collalou, roasted yams, ackee and saltfish, jerk pork, the aforementioned goat belly soup; but no Rasta I knew ate Rasta Pasta). Plus, I don’t care how much money I ever have, I am not flying anywhere just to hear a “reggae band” perform “Wind Beneath My Wings”.

It was refreshing to realize that no matter where you go, people have more in common than not. This leads me to the last lesson that I learned while in Jamaica: MORNING DJ’S SUCK NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO. Just because they have a West Indian accent does not make them any better.

“Good, good morning to you, mon.”

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