Friday, December 13, 2013

Three Trips Short of Being Jamerican





Tourism commissions exist to paint sexy pictures of whatever piece of real estate they promote.  Travelers to the Bahamas were once told that “It’s Better in the Bahamas,” and they continued to be told that despite nobody ever finding the “it.”  Travelers headed to Puerto Rico were told it was the “Continent of Puerto Rico” and if you continued on a bit further southeast to Dominica you were told it was the “Nature Island of the Caribbean.”

Marketing of multifaceted Mexico has followed many twists and turns.  Sun worshipers see a flood of commercials showing idyllic beaches and people plunging off rocky cliffs into the aquamarine sea.  For Americans on the West Coast, the tourist commission pushed glitzy places like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta and Cabo.  People on the East Coast are lured with visions of the green Caribbean waters off Cancun and Cozumel.  “Adventure” travelers saw advertisements for trips to rugged Copper Canyon, while those with an interest in archeology and anthropology saw advertisements for the ruins at Monte Alban, Palenque, and Uxmal.  Mexico’s tourist advertisements worked wonderfully, and tourism was soon one of the most important parts of Mexico’s diverse economy. 

Travelers to Jamaica were first lured by pictures of smiling faces and friendly people under the banner of “Make It Jamaica.”  After enough people had tried to make it in Jamaica, and learned that the only smiling happy people were the two in the advertisement pictures, the tourist commission came up with “Make It Jamaica, Again.”  They hoped someone might.

An Air Jamaica (now an extinct airline) Airbus 300 deposited me in Montego Bay on my first trip to the island in May 1990.  Long-time friend and fellow biologist Jon Andrew and I had come to Jamaica for a week of bird watching.  Jamaica has the distinction of being home to 28 species of birds that are endemic to the island.  An endemic is one that exists nowhere else on earth.  That number is the largest number of endemic birds of any island nation in the West Indies.  We were hoping to find them all.

Walking out of the air conditioned comfort of Sangster International Airport into the heavily humid night air of Jamaica we were immediately hit on by hustlers.  One guy wanted to sell me some ganja and another was selling cocaine.  A third said he wanted to sell me his younger sister adding “she’s a virgin,” which after looking at her I found very difficult to believe.  All of these scammers were waiting just outside of the arrivals door and more of them approached us as we walked to our rental car and then stopped nearby to purchase gas.



Jon and I spent a week near Discovery Bay and went on daily forays into the countryside from there searching for birds.  One day we drove to the Blue Mountains above Kingston where, in a flash, I learned that leaving your window down after parking the car was a mistake because someone came by on a motorcycle and stole my tape recorder from the front seat.  Another day we drove into the Cockpit County to look for birds at Windsor Caves National Park. Enroute we passed through the little village of Kinloss.  As we made our way through town we were verbally accosted and told to “get the fuck out of here honky.”  Rocks were thrown at us and knives pulled out from hip holsters and one welcoming man pointed a pistol (I assumed it was loaded) at us as we raced out of town.  Shouted voices behind us were telling us to never come back.

Sugarbelly, the drug-addled manager of Windsor Caves National Park said, after we told him about the experience in Kinloss, “When tourists leave the tourist prisons they find a whole other Jamaica they didn’t know existed.”  The “tourist prisons” Sugarbelly mentioned are the resort hotels that line the beaches on much of Jamaica’s coast.

Our time in Jamaica was well spent and at the end of the week we had seen 27 of the 28 endemic bird species.  I had hoped to find them all so I never had to return to this island but Jamaican Owl remained in hiding and that meant I had to return some day.



The endemic Jamaican owl was the sole reason I returned to Jamaica a second time.  Image downloaded from Wikipedia with no attribution to who took the image

As part of a training program I was in I spent the spring and summer of 1992 on loan to the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges where I lived on Big Pine Key.  For some unexplained reason American Airlines and its American Eagle subsidiary had a ridiculously cheap airfare from Marathon and Key West via Miami to Montego Bay over the Memorial Day weekend .  It was one of those airfares that were too cheap to stay home and I still needed to see Jamaican Owl so against my better judgment I went back to Jamaica.

Seeing a Jamaican Owl is simplest at Windsor Caves National Park and to get there I had to pass through Kinloss again.  This time I did so at 4:00 a.m. when everyone was still stoned and asleep and nobody bothered me. Unfortunately they were all awake and lining the streets of Kinloss at 9:00 a.m. when I passed through town again and although I saw no guns or knives a rock bounced off my windshield after someone yelled “You fucking honky. Get out of here!”

I had followed the Jamaican Tourism Commission’s slogan and not only made it Jamaica once I also made it Jamaica again.  Having seen the Jamaican Owl on the second trip I now happily had no other reason to return there.

However in ensuing years I did return there and I did so for various reasons.  Most surprisingly (and refreshingly) each time I have returned to Jamaica I have not experienced any of the anger and hostility that greeted me on my first two visits more than 20 years ago.  Now when I go there people treat me like I am someone they have known for years and they make me feel welcome. 


Twenty-five years ago my arrival in Jamaica was greeted with guns and rocks and offers to buy virgin sisters. Now tourists are greeted with raggae and soca music

In 2006 I flew to Montego Bay to work on my Jamaica bird list and in 2008 I flew to Kingston for a weekend solely to look for shorebirds in the lagoons on that side of the island.  In 2012 I spent a week there drinking beer at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafes that stretch from Ocho Rios to Negril. Everyone everywhere on the island was happy to see me and made me feel welcomed.  On a hunch I drove through Kinloss one afternoon and was shocked to see little Jamaican kids waving at me as I drove through, many of them saying “Hello, mon” as I passed by.  Not a single knife, gun or rock was in evidence that day.  Just smiling Jamaican faces.  On each of these trips to both Kingston and Montego Bay I was not approached by a single hustler. Nobody wanted to sell me ganja and nobody offered me their virgin sister.  Instead I was asked “Need any help finding your way to the rental car, mon?”

I made two quick trips to Jamaica in 2013; one was a flight to Montego Bay and two weeks later the second trip saw my arrival in Montego Bay on a cruise ship.  On both trips this year I was treated like I was someone who was welcomed by the Jamaicans.  Sailing out of Montego Bay harbor a week ago I actually felt sad that I had to leave the island so soon after arriving.  A taxi driver in Montego Bay asked me how many times I had been to Jamaica and when I told him this was my seventh trip he smiled and said, “Three more trips mon and you’re no longer an American.”   I asked what I would be after 10 trips and he said, “After 10 trips you’re a Jamerican, mon.”  Twenty five years ago I was the enemy and now I’m three trips short of being a Jamaican-American.

I don’t know what has changed in Jamaica but whatever it is it has been for the good.  My second trip there, the one in 1992, I remember talking with a Jamaican man in a bar in Falmouth who, after we each had downed our daily limit of Red Stripe beer, told me that he hated me “because you’re white, mon.”  Hate was a very strong word but that was the word he used.  When I asked why he said “because you were a slave owner, mon.”

I was?  That was news to me.  I told my Jamaican drinking buddy that slavery was abolished in the United States in 1863, a mere 88 years before I was even a glint in my father’s testosterone soaked eye.  I also said that in 1863 my ancestors were 20 years shy of moving from Norway where, at the time, they were mostly interested in figuring out how to catch more cod in the North Atlantic Ocean.

“Doesn’t matter, mon,” my drinking buddy told me.  “You’re white so you’re guilty and that’s all I have to say about it.”

Perhaps it’s a matter of Jamaican’s realizing that their economy is highly dependent on tourism and tourism dollars and if tourists are having rocks thrown at them it’s not really good for the country.  Another thing that I like to think is contributing is the excellent movie Cool Runnings a story about the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team that came within a loose bolt of winning a medal at the Winter Olympics in Calgary.  The movie and the actors portrayal of Jamaicans was so unlike what I had experienced on my first two trips.  Yet after the movie came out who among us couldn’t like Jamaicans?  The entire world had become a fan of the Jamaican bobsled team and in fact I’m still their fan today.


I often wonder how much the excellent movie Cool Runnings has had to do with the tectonic shift in the outlook of Jamaicas toward visitors

I think the movie not only gave Americans the chance to see Jamaican’s for who they really are.  It also gave Jamaicans the chance to see that we tourists aren’t the marauding bastards they had been led to believe by years and years of anger and mistrust.  Even more so it gave Jamaicans a reason to be intensely proud of being Jamaican.  Maybe that had been lacking before.

Its pure speculation about the movie and I have no way of knowing if I’m even close to being correct about its effects on Jamaicans and Americans about each other.  Maybe the change in attitude and outlook has nothing at all to do with it. However its seems more than a tad coincidental that just a few years after Cool Runnings was released, Jamaicans started to make me and other Americans feel welcome.



A tranquil afternoon on tranquil Montego Bay

I became horribly lost along the north coast during my November 2013 trip to Montego Bay and to Falmouth.  Totally befuddled I stopped a Jamaican man at an intersection with the North Coast highway and told him I had no idea how to find my guesthouse in the hills above Falmouth.  “No problem, mon,” he began, “do you have their phone number? I’ll call them for you and tell them I’m bringing you there.”

Handing him the phone number he called, talked to the guesthouse owner and then said, “Follow me mon, I’ll take you there.”  Taking off in the gathering dusk I followed my guide up into the hills and through the winding roads to the entrance of my guesthouse (I would have never found it in the dark).  Stepping from my car and shaking his hand while thanking him profusely, my Jamaican guide said, “No problem, mon.  It was a pleasure you know.  Americans are important to us in Jamaica and we want you safe and happy while you’re here.”


Whatever it is that has changed in Jamaica it’s a good thing and now I can’t wait to get back.  Actually I can’t wait to get back there three more times so I can tell all my friends that I’m now Jamerican.  I wonder what a Jamerican passport looks like?

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