Monday, June 29, 2009

Pirates of the Caribbean c.2

Chapter Two: Jerk Chicken in Paradise

The next morning we basically had but one obligation, to check in with our Apple Vacations “Rep” about setting up travel back to the airport when we are to leave. In other words, have them tell us what time the bus leaves to go back to the airport on the day we leave. Then, the rest of the day was ours.

Now, this is where the Apple people get their chance to sell you an “excursion”, or a trip to, say, go snorkeling, sight seeing, what have you. You can purchase one from anyone you wish, but the Apple Vacation people like to get a shot at you, too. I’ve dealt with them in Mexico, and they are pleasant, not overly pushy. Nothing like the nightmare of the timeshare people! And, in fact, I had all intention of adding an excursion when we arrived, as we wanted to go into Negril and visit the famous Rick’s Café. They had a package where they take you by bus shopping, sight seeing to the lighthouse, then to Ricks for a very reasonable price. All things I wanted to do, shop, get a look at the people and history, and then have a beer at Rick's. Maybe even cliff dive? Well, we'll see. I know Beck won't!

As we started our lengthy walk to the main lobby from our room, we had our first look in the daylight at he beautiful beach along the resort. The beach was tree lined, dotted with white plastic resin lounge chairs, a few of them occupied. Plenty of shade, but the March Jamaican sun was pleasant, not oppressive as the Cancun sun can be.

The sea was calm, with gentle waves spilling ashore. The grounds of the resort were beautiful and very green, well manicured. As with most RIU properties, Greco/Roman architecture was the predominate theme, with many statues adorning the plaza, complimenting the gentle, light lavender temple-like buildings. The centerpiece of one strip of Caesar statues along the path was a tall, naked male figure I dubbed “Thumbdick”.

We met up with our Apple rep to give her the paperwork to head back to the airport on Monday, and she briefly explained we’d get notice in our room the day of departure, etc. That was it, no hard sell! Jamaica is just more relaxed, I guess. So, when I mentioned we wanted to add an excursion to Negril, she happily complied, and set us up for that afternoon! Wow, excellent! At a very reasonable $25 a person. Our afternoon was set!

We grabbed a quick breakfast at the buffet, and shared it outside with some extremely aggressive fowl that hang around, looking for scraps! This one skinny, white feathered fella would just glare at you from about an arms length away, his menacing stare and slow, methodical, impatient strut letting you know that the moment you get up, your food is his! I’d raise my arms up and growl to scare him away, and he’d causally flinch, taking a few step back gently, but by and large he wasn’t startled whatsoever! You little, arrogant bastard! Becca laughed, and we enjoyed some terrific coffee along with our intrusive local “friend”.

We took a stroll along the beach, situated in what’s known as Bloody Bay. How do you like THAT for a geographical location? Palm trees covering the beach offered generous shade, unlike the barren, treeless beaches of Cancun. I could almost envision pirate ships full mast sailing into the bay! “Arrghie matie! Shiver me timbers!” I was not envisioning Johnny Depp, however.

In reality, as I gazed out into the bay, to me it bore more of a resemblance to a James Bond film. The bay was ringed with resorts including our own, and anchored just off shore amid the turquoise blue sea rested an elegant sloop with it's masts stowed. I could imagine some trophy Bond woman slinking around deck in a revealing bikini to the sound of sultry saxophone music carrying two martinis, with a relaxing Sean Connery uttering some pithy innuendo that includes the word “Pussy” (pronounced Push-hie by the esteemed Sir Connery). Very Continental!

Also, stationed at the edges of the resort property were smaller craft manned by Rastafarian looking characters begging passers by to take them out to the sea for fish excursions. They were pushy at times, but took no for an answer very calmly.

Jet-skis would occasionally zoom past the buoy marked limit as well. I think they would occasionally zip across the bay to get attention, using that as a marketing tool to rent the devices. Beck mentioned it as being very enjoyable to ride them, but I wasn't sure we'd have the time to try.

Sometime after lunch, which we skipped (va va va voom! Wink wink), we patiently waited at the foot of the resort’s foyer for the tour bus to arrive to drive us into Negril, however they were running extremely late. Hey, no problem, Mon! No one is in a hurry in Jamaica! It was the same bus running tourists into Negril resorts from the airport, and they were stacked up this afternoon. Running about an hour behind, we finally piled on the bus with some dozen other tourists and headed out on our excursion.

Our tour guide greeted us with the typical thick, Jamaican accent, and she explained different things about the region as we made the short trip into town. The resort is only about 4 or 5 miles outside Negril, which is a sleepy little village located at the western most point of the island. One interesting feature she mentioned is that no structure is allowed to be build taller than the palm trees, which explains why there are no skyscraper resorts at Negril. They are not allowed to detract from the islands natural beauty.

After a brief drive, we arrived at a modest green shack called JammRock to do some shopping, and all piled out of the bus. Inside the tiny shack, it was cram packed with tee shirts and trinkets. The proprietors of the place were decidedly NOT Jamaican, but probably Iranian or Bosnian, or something more Mediterranean.

I found cool shirt after cool shirt, and some very nice Cuban cigars as well. Montecristo, my brand! I wasn’t sure if this was our only shopping stop, as we had other parts to the tour and running behind. I pretty much found everything I wanted and more. So did Becca.

We pooled everything together we wished to purchase, haggled for a discount, and bought one official shitload of goods. In fact, it broke us both of the spending cash we’d brought from the hotel. I still had plenty of money back there, and had left most of my credit cards in the safe as well for safekeeping. So, for the rest of this day trip, well, we weren’t really buying anything unless they took Discover!

After this brief detour, we piled back into the bus and moved along to Negril proper. It’s undulating, steep terrain rises out of the sea, featuring some steep hills reminiscent of San Francisco or Seattle, only perhaps not as tall. Perhaps more like the steep bluffs located in Collinsville and Caseyville, Illinois.

The bus pulled around and navigated a parking spot alongside a run down, flamingo pink shopping strip loaded with cheesy looking tourist souvenir shops. Uh oh! More shopping! And I'd blown my whole wad at the first place! Damn! I felt kinda sick. Guess we’ll just get out and walk, take in the sights then!

We wandered around the sidewalks briefly, noting the shops and people around them. I didn’t really see anything that I’d cared to purchase, but I still couldn’t shake that nagging feeling that I’d made a big mistake spending too much and at the first place we went to and not saving some. I hate misjudging something like that!

Still, I can honestly say there was nothing at any of these shops I wanted or interested me. The tee-shirt prices were much cheaper, but, so were the shirts, and really nothing that I wanted design wise. I'd gotten the best tee shirts at the other place. I guess I didn’t blow it after all, but I was still down on myself somewhat.

Amidst the rundown shops and impoverished local Jamaicans loitering about stood a new Burger King, lending a surreal tie to home. Home Of The Whopper, Mon!

At one point, a Rastafarian looking character with an acoustic guitar wandered up the sidewalk, found a clear corner between two of the shops in the shade, and started to play for tips. I’d made my way back on the bus anxiously waiting to move on, so I couldn’t really hear him perform through the glass of the bus. Still, a fascinating touch of ambiance. Jamaica is a musical place, to be sure!

Before long, we made our way out of downtown Jamaica and backtracked briefly towards the resort, crossing the very modest Negril River. Along side the banks of the river stood a row of shanties huddled together, dilapidated and very humble.

“Wow! Look at those!” Becca said with alarm, noting the squalid conditions the structures bore. At that moment, the tour guide announced we’d be visiting the “artisans” spending about ten minutes or so, which I immediately equated with the “flea market” in Cancun. And, that probably meant…

Yup, we were pulling into visit those same exact shanties! That’s were they sold stuff dirt cheap, and I suspected with the same Mexican hard sell as I’d had to endure in Cancun at their flea markets. It was an eye opening experience, to be sure! They can quickly make one very uncomfortable, hagging over anything and everything.

Cautiously we crawled out of the bus onto the grounds, where all manner of tin shacks held trinkets, hand made items, and tons and tons of tee shirts at ridiculously cheap prices. And let me tell you, the haggard locals were all over you to get you to follow them back to their personal shanty and have a look. I humored one of them, not bothering to tell them that at that moment, I was as poor as they were! I wanted to get a feel for the ambiance. I nodded to Becca to follow, and began to wander down the “streets” of this Jamaican shanty town, with a young Jamaican leading me to his particular spot that exhibited his wares.

Each tiny shed was stocked from dirt floor to tin covered ceiling with all manner of cheap shit. Each polite Jamaican face smiled back at me with a strange pleading look of desire in their eyes, looking to sell me something: anything. Some places housed intricate, hand crafted wooden statues of all kinds. Some were just cheap shit novelty shirts and junk souvenirs. If I had a buck, I 'd bought something just to do my part to alleviate the poverty. But, the slick Iranians got all my money back at JammRock. Sorry, Mon.

About 10 minutes is the maximum you can take of that place! That was as much of the Third World as I ever wanted to experience! I held Becca’s hand tightly, and weaved our way through the earthen avenue of sheds back to the main parking lot and our bus. We were both kind of overwhelmed at the sight of it all. Just such a beautiful country, but so much desperate poverty.

We departed the humble shanty town and traveled back outside of town. Our next destination was the Negril Lighthouse, located on the western most point of Jamaica. The driver took the “long way”, climbing up and down rocky hills, weaving in and out of green valleys making for an interesting first hand look at the local countryside and its unique people.

Jamaicans are decedent from African slaves, many of whom either worked the sugar plantations on the island centuries ago, or from slave trade ships that landed or shipwrecked there. The British outlawed slavery a good deal earlier than our history. As Jamaica was one of the only Caribbean possessions in the British Empire (useful as a pirate staging area to terrorize Spanish shipping lanes, and wealthy Spanish galleons loaded with Mexican gold), it has a unique English culture of its own. Its famous rum, distilled from sugar grown on the island, has lead to many an intoxicating party, I'm sure! They grow more than that on the island as well, which they smoke often.

As we passed small bundles of houses, I'd spot some of these “decedents” as they meandered through their daily lives. Some strolling along the side of the road, some on bicycle. All very modest, humble, but yet seemingly happy and bright. Amidst the simple landscape, they were a simple, happy people it would seem.

Most of the houses we passed were very modest and often run down, some apparently even having been destroyed by recent hurricane activity and abandoned. Although, on occasion, we’d pass a beautiful newer home that seemed strangely out of place among the shacks.

“Out here,” the tour guide said, “live da doctors, da lawyers, da teachers, and da ‘street pharmacists.’” We chuckled. Everyone understood who that meant.

The bus would creak, wheeze, and moan as the driver led us over steep inclines, and through the island's rocky valleys along the narrow, bumpy roads to the coast.

Occasionally, some trees that we would pass bore beautiful scarlet red flowers, which our tour guide explained were the national fruit of the island, but also very dangerous. If picked at the wrong stage, we were told, they were deadly poisonous, but when ripened and picked at precisely the proper moment, it was as delicious delicacy that they served with saltfish. The brilliant red blooms dotted the trees every where we passed, along with many other colorful floral species along the roadway.

Goats were everywhere! Roaming fields, tied to trees, tied to bumpers, goats were plentiful. Occasionally we'd spot cattle, even chickens, but goats were the most popular.

“Do you have goats back home?” our tour guide inquired rather playfully. “Goats are a delicacy here on the island,” she explained. She went on to describe a delicious goat’s head soup recipe that had the whole bus groaning! “Oh, it’s wonderful!” she exclaimed. I think I’ll pass on that if it’s on the menu at Rick’s Café. Speaking of which, Becca and I were both getting very hungry, and I was just praying to God that Rick’s Cafe took Discover!

After winding through the hillside, passing shanties, shacks, and larger, more beautiful homes of probably aforementioned “street pharmacists”, we arrived at the Negril lighthouse standing guard the western most tip of the island. We all piled out of the bus for an excellent photo op, and I began to have the urge to urinate extremely badly! Yeeow!

I took some wonderful pictures of the countryside as well as the sea from the magnificent cliffs. Across the tiny bay from the lighthouse sat Rick's Cafe, our next destination. I was hoping to make it to the bathroom over there, but that was looking more and more like and increasingly difficult chore. A well placed bush would suffice for now!

I also snapped some amusing pictures, one of a strange television set resting among the trees near the bluffs. I also posed for an amusing if not juvenile photo of me standing in front of a mounted cannon ala Bob the Enzyte guy. All of it was breathtakingly beautiful. Now, where's the bathroom? Please!

We pulled into Rick's about a 45 minutes or so before sunset, and our tour guide informed us that after the sun goes down, we'll head back to our resort, so they encouraged us to order any food right away so as not to get caught waiting. Check. Find bathroom, order food. Got it!

The cafe was packed, and our tour bus driver delicately navigated the cumbersome bus along the crowded, narrow street to the entrance. My foot was tapping, and I was achingly having to go pee. I made a bee line out of the bus and scanned the premises, desperately searching for the restroom facilities. People were everywhere! It was very reminiscent of The Loading Dock in Grafton, Illinois, except it was perched in paradise!

A friendly red, gold and green sign mounted on a tree pointed towards the john, with arrows that displayed “Mon”, and “Wo-Mon”. Bingo! I can spare you the assorted details, but whilst in the can, I could plainly hear the female side of the restroom. Oddly close, as though the were right next to me.

When I approached the sink, it took me a second, but in between the mirrors on the wall I saw women's faces staring back at me! Whoa! Between the two restrooms, there were only some mirrors separating! You couldn't really see the “business end” of the toilets, but it is a shock to see into the women's bathroom, or to have them stare back at you! Good thing I didn't walk around with my dork hanging out!

Much relieved, I took a second to casually wander the grounds and snap some photos. A modest pool rested next to the bathroom cabana, and seated within the pool were a table full of revelers! Nice seat!!

At the edge of the bluffs, a couple people lined up to a small stairway, and, well, jumped off! I peered down below, some 20 to 35 feet I'd hazard to guess, where I spotted a couple dogpaddling their way in the beautiful azure lagoon towards the landing area, having just taken the plunge. A stairway lead down along the rocky cliff to a flat, man made concrete landing, and people lined every inch of it of the path, holding drinks and watching the action.

I'd worn my trunks in case I'd gotten the hankerin' to take a “dip” off the cliff. As some of my close friends know, I'm deathly afraid of heights. Now this wasn't much worse than a two story building, I guess. I could probably muster up the courage, just to say that I did it. But, it was going to take some coaxing, and some mental preparation. The red warning sign placed before the jumping stairs making clear that this wasn't the safest thing to do and that Rick's takes NO responsibility for your actions should you decided to jump off makes you stop and think it over for a minute. That is a pretty long way down.

And, first things first: I had to order some food! And beer!

I located Becca amongst the crowd, and we made our way to the bar side of the property as the bright sun slowly dipped past the clouds towards the sea. This was going to be the BEST spot to watch the BEST sunset! The bar was sheltered, but had no walls save the back area, and numerous flat screen monitors hung about, displaying all manner of sports, not unlike any other sports bar one would come across. We found a good location at the bar where we could watch the setting sun, and also found some menus. Yes! They take Discover! This is paradise!

I ordered up some authentic spicy Jerk Chicken and a bottle of Red Stripe lager, and Becca ordered some kind of chicken dish, and a Red Stripe for herself. Man, this Red Stripe is good beer! I'd had the import version once, years ago in South County at Brian's Metal's Edge, but as can happen with imports, the taste was skunky and more bitter. My fear was that I'd be served the same. I wasn't. This was sweet, smooth lager. Ice cold, but more creamy than crisp. The first one went down very quickly, and I ordered up another of the squat, barrel shaped, white labeled brown bottles. “Yah mon, no problem!”

I spun around on my barstool with a fresh beer in hand and gauged the speed at which the sun was setting. A patch of light gray clouds hung close in the sky as the Caribbean Sea began to glisten like a thousand jewels. A treasure like no other, lasting for only moments, but free to all to enjoy.

“This is going to be a spectacular sunset,” I told Beck, as I looked over the crowd of people that were starting to make their way to the open air patio tables across from my barstool. With a bank of clouds like this moving in, I know some of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen back home are when the bright oranges and deep pinks slowly fade to rich purples across a partially cloudy sky. I was starting to witness exactly that, with the beautiful golden ocean added in. It was heart stopping.

In front of the bar area towards the edge of the cliffs that lined the premises, a reggae band had begun to play for our amusement on a specially constructed covered bandstand. Unlike the band at the RIU the night before, this band's lead singer was a round, stocky woman wearing some kind of African style head dress. But, like the other reggae band, they were quite talented! Again, I'm not a big fan of the genre, but, I was digging what I was hearing, and the ambiance was perfect: pure hedonism! Great food, great drinks, rhythmic music, and lightshow provided by God. This is what life is!

Without a great deal of delay, our dinner (lunch?) was served to us, and I anxiously dug into my spicy Jerk chicken. It was excellent, with a little bit of kick. Nothing overpowering. Those Red Stripe lagers were going down quickly, too! The look on Beck's face said it all as well: we were in heaven! A complete sensory pleasure overload! Almost indescribable.

With one more Red Stripe, I pulled out my camera as the sun began to touch the sea and slowly sink beneath the horizon. Thicker cloud cover made the sky more gray than I'd expected, but the Jamaican sunset was spectacular none the less! Slowly, the sun sank into the dazzling blue Caribbean, and as it slipped away, the entire crowd at Rick's burst into applause. A magical, peaceful moment shared by all. Wow, kinda moving! Another day in paradise, literally!

We settled up our tab with the barmaid, and made our way to the gift shop to grab a shirt and stuff before getting on the bus back. Had to have something to remember this by! Found a fitting tie-dye tee in my size, and Beck found some appropriate attire. After a quick pit stop at the “head” one last time (hi ladies!), we found our tour guide was searching for us, as all others had boarded the bus to head back.

The trip back to the resort only took about 15 minutes at most, as we'd taken the long way out to the lighthouse, so the drive took the short trip back. But, it was a reflective, peaceful ride thru Negril as darkness descended on the tiny seaside village. I think I'd just touched the edges of heaven. And what a party it is!


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