Lively, hilarious Jamaica, where even the bamboo moves to a reggae beat
Port Antonio, Jamaica
Jamaica is, as the advertisements say, not just a beach, but a country. A noisy, crowded, hilarious country. Inside that scalloped ring of white sand and warm, utterly clear water, there's a lot going on. Jamaican culture is assertive , which is not to say aggressive, but you should go there because you're interested in Jamaicans and a tan. Millions of radios thump out the curious, lagging reggae beat. And the lush landscape is not, by any means, unpopulated.Skip to next paragraph
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I was riding down the Rio Grande on a bamboo raft somewhere behind Port Antonio. Errol, my rafter, poled. Blue and white herons stroked across the sky. We came around a bend to find a lovely meadow on one side, a mountain on the other, with bamboo trees shaking like big green feather dusters in the wind.
''Zuguzugugu zuguzeng!'' boomed a loud, silly voice. The hills were alive with the sound of Yellow Man, a popular disc jockey, yakking his nonsense verses , which were pouring from a radio perched in the crotch of a tree, company for the peanut and drink vendor floating nearby on his raft.
It wasn't exactly the forest primeval, but it all went together. The music was happy, the bamboo was nodding, the river gurgled, and people did their laundry along the other bank.
They didn't get in the way of the mountains stacked with bamboo trees that creak in the wind, coconut palms, and pimento trees with allspice-scented leaves. In the midst of almost supernatural beauty, the slow bustle of Jamaican doings, full of song and dance, jokes and choice remarks, offers relief, sometimes comic. The Blue Mountains are so massive and, well, blue, they can make your heart ache. Until you see a row of nine-year-old boys in the foreground, moving like oil derricks or pawing the air like cartoon bunnies to the ubiquitous national beat.
It takes a few days of eavesdropping to understand the patois they speak here. It's English, but at first it sounds so foreign you don't bother to listen. Familiar words are disguised by accenting unexpected syllables. Figure out the rhythm, and you will be rewarded with what V.S. Naipaul called ''a Welsh feeling for rhetoric.'' It comes out in ordinary ways.
Mrs. J. Mullings, who runs the De Montevin Lodge with her husband, was talking about how she started to do the cooking there when her sister went to America. ''There was no one else to take up the -cudgel,'' she explains.
''Cool runnin's,'' yelled a group of men on the back of a truck loaded with bananas, meaning we could pass them. Beverly Hills, the walled, dog-protected preserve of the rich in Kingston, is ''stocious,'' or stuck-up, and a disagreeable person is ''hinky.''
The Stretch-to-Fit Club is the name of a bar, but it also describes an attitude. Just try to see light through a Jamaican minibus, packed with reggae-radio-toting riders as it lurches swollenly over the mountains.
If Jamaicans' sense of space stretches to fit, their sense of time is rubbery. You soon learn to ask for anything only once. It takes a long time to get it, but not because they've forgotten. I watched a hotel guest go into the kitchen to refill a coffee jug herself. She came back laughing, mimicking the cook's dance to the kitchen radio.
Watch someone walking home from the market in the noonday sun, under an umbrella, and you'll see the gait life in Jamaica takes. Try to walk the way you do at home, and you'll realize how sensible a gait that is.
Dr. Marco Brown, minister of tourism, says he aims for ''integration'' of Jamaicans and visitors. No problem, as they say here. The beach at Ocho Rios, a balmy crescent with skyscraping hotels at one end and a bauxite loading facility at the other, is an example of natural beauty spoiled by Jamaica's two big industries. But it is not just a playground for Chicagoans, Detroiters, and Bostonians. It is, especially on Sundays, a parade ground for Ocho Rians, who march up and down in bathing suits or Sunday best and umbrellas. It's a perfect place to get to know the town.
Going to the beach is a different proposition in Jamaica from the United States. Here, we try to get away from one another or at least pretend to be alone, braising in silence. Jamaicans clump together. Whole families sit in the shade of a sea grape tree. Dandling babies in the water requires several adults. People meet their friends, talk, and dance.