Leaving the Compound And Finding One Love (the Hard Way) in Jamaica
I should never listen to Todd.
When I told my friend Todd, aka Choupique, we were going to Jamaica, he lit up like a sparkler on the 4th of July.
“Dude!” he said, “Ya gotta go to Fonthill Nature Reserve! They got crocodiles that chase iguanas up frickin trees. They’re practically arboreal!”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Maybe so…”
Note: I later discovered that Todd had never actually been to the reserve, nor Jamaica for that matter! His recommendation was based on an article he had stumbled across in some obscure biology journal. Always check your sources!
Most Americans who travel to Jamaica stay on a compound. They go to an all-inclusive resort like Sandals or Hedonism VIII, drink margaritas by the pool and swim with dolphins in a fenced-in lagoon. They take a Carnival cruise without ever leaving port.
My wife and I had a different idea. We wanted to experience the real Jamaica. We were gonna discover the next generation of Wailers in Trench Town, take a pilgrimage to Nine Mile, the birthplace of Bob Marley, drink Blue Mountain coffee IN the Blue Mountains, find literary inspiration at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye and Noël Coward’s Firefly, call on the elusive doctor bird in Marshall’s Pen, “worship” with Rastafarians, dine on jerk, and run, upright, with Osama Bolt! I mean, we are New Orleanians. We love adventure.
Unbeknownst to my wife, I was also motivated by the popular 1972 poster of Sintra Bronte emerging from the water wearing nothing but a tee shirt. Who wouldn’t want to “come to Jamaica and feel alright!?”
Our plan was to fly into Kingston armed with an old copy of Lonely Planet, rent a car, tool around the island for two weeks without reservations, recover for a few days on the rocks above Negril and then return home via Montego Bay. We would get as far off the compound as humanly possible.
My dad likes to say, “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.” Unfortunately for us, our “bad plan” was, well, no plan at all!
If Milton needed inspiration for Paradise Lost, he could have easily found it in the Caribbean. Jamaica is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places on the planet! But, as a therapist might say, “It has issues.”
On the other side of the resort walls, the former British colony is dirt poor. Its infrastructure is crumbling and order is hard to come by. Entire swaths of the island seem to be teetering on the edge of anarchy! At one point we stayed at a Big House deep in the jungle. It resembled the plantation in Apocalypse Now Redux. The expats who ran the place were desperately clinging to a bygone era! They served Beef Wellington and high tea as the world around them slowly collapsed.
But we are used to this and more in New Orleans. While some people look at our buildings and say they should be torn down, we simply add a few nails and call them "renovated." We love the issues. It's what adds color to life.
Although, the roads in Jamaica are bad and the drivers are even worse. “Jammin’ in the name of the Lord” (I hope you like jammin’ too?), locals race around the island on the “wrong” side of the street at breakneck speeds. They’re the only thing in the country that moves fast. All along the highways there were signs that read, “Don’t let your overtake be your undertake!” and “Don’t be in a rush to get to eternity!” Obviously, they were part of a failed safety campaign.
Over the trail rated course of two weeks, we survived numerous near collisions, several flat tires, a flash flood, an all-night reggae rap rave, food poisoning from undercooked Juici Patties, and an almost endless barrage of panhandlers who always enquired, “Can I get ya something from the field man?”
Limping our way toward Negril, between the Black River and White House on the southern coast, we passed an inconspicuous sign that read, “Fonthill Nature Reserve.” Before I could ask, my wife just shook her head. “No!”
“But Choupique said they have arboreal crocodiles,” I pleaded.
“We’re going to Negril,” she said.
“But Todd lit up like a sparkler,” I said. “He’d be seriously disappointed if we missed it.”
Always the pragmatist, my wife pointed out, “We don’t have water, a map, or a phone. And, it’s getting late!”
“We’ll only stop for a second,” I persisted. “We’ll pop in, look for crocodiles in the trees, and then go. We’ll stay for a half an hour at most.”
“At most!” she said.
Pulling in to the parking lot, we were surprised to find a huge crowd. It was Sunday and the locals were having a party on the beach. They were listening to music, cooking jerk, drinking, smoking and dancing; no one was looking for crocodiles.
The park had no welcome center, ranger, brochure or trailhead. To enter the reserve, we had to limbo our way under a rickety barbed wire fence. The revelers looked at us as though we were crazy. “Why would you go there when you could be here?” they thought.
They had a point.
With mangroves on the left and ocean on the right, we walked along the beach until we could no longer hear the music. And, it was beautiful. We came across a secluded bay with sugar white sand and crystal clear water. Nurse sharks were mating in the shallows and dolphins were hunting beyond the reef. It looked like the blue lagoon in Blue Lagoon.
Maybe Todd was right? I thought.
We took a swim and relaxed on the beach. Then, I made a fateful suggestion: “Let’s take the mangroves back. Maybe we’ll see one of those cool crocodiles?”
My wife objected, but again, I was persistent. “Todd would surely be disappointed…”
So, we took a spindly trail that led in the general direction of the park entrance. In retrospect, I don’t think it was a trail at all, but rather a path frequented by foolish pigs. We walked and walked and walked until we came to a dead end, and then another, and another and another.
At about the time I realized we were seriously lost, I also realized that my wife was about to have her “vacation meltdown.” These “episodes” occur at least once a trip, usually prompted by a decision of mine based on a recommendation from Todd. With my palms facing the ground I pleaded, “Please, please don’t have a meltdown!”
Before I could say more, my wife, wearing flip flops, stepped in a massive pile of crocodile crap. As she screamed, the beast that had most likely created the mess, bounded toward us. It was as big as the biggest alligator I had ever seen, but much uglier. It had a pointy snout and huge teeth that obviously didn’t fit in its mouth. I thought about climbing a tree, but quickly remembered, “They’re &%$! arboreal!” Just before the animal tore us into human ceviche, it unexpectedly (and thankfully) turned and plunged into the swamp. Unlike us, it actually knew where it was.
For the next ten minutes my wife hurled expletives (deservedly so) at me, Choupique, Lonely Planet, Jamaica, the nature reserve, and its unique endemic flora and fauna. When she finally tuckered out, I heard off in the distance the unmistakable, albeit faint sound of Gregory Isaacs singing about a night nurse, a protagonist we would desperately need later that evening. “All we have to do is follow the music,” I said. “It’ll be as easy as Hansel and Gretel picking up bread crumbs in the forest…”
It wasn’t. Instead, it was more like sieging a medieval castle, dodging boiling oil, arrows and insults: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”
Using a beach towel as a shield, we plowed our way through a gauntlet of sludge, stickers, fire ants, and deer flies. For about forty-five minutes, we bushwhacked our way toward Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear – in silence.
Covered in blood, sweat and welts, we finally arrived at the rickety barbed wire fence. On the other side, the reggae jam was still going strong. The crowd again stared at us in disbelief.
“What is wrong with these white people?” they thought. Then, an old man wearing nothing but torn jeans and long dreadlocks walked up to us, handed me a Red Stripe and asked, “Can I get ya somethin from the field man?”
“Yes,” I said. “By all means!”
Throughout our vacation/ordeal, I kept telling my wife, “Wherever ya go, you gotta live off the land. You should always eat what ya see!” Since we saw nothing but chickens and goats all over the island, I suggested we eat, well, chicken and goat. My wife approved of the former, but frowned on the latter. I, unfortunately, partook of both.
I spent the first five days back in New Orleans at Touro Hospital with acute abdominal pains. The GI doctor bleated, “You probably ate “baaaaaaaad” goat.”
Note 1: Crocodile crap and ruminant digestive troubles aside, my wife and I love Jamaica. The island is beautiful and the people are wonderful. Whenever we go back, we always leave the compound, eat chicken, and ignore recommendations from my dear friend Choupique.
Note 2: For a primer on the grittier side of Jamaica, see the 1972 film, The Harder They Come. The soundtrack is arguably the best reggae album of all time.
And, as always, we were happy to return to our home of New Orleans, where the issues may be strange to foreigners, but they're what make this place home - alligators, giant potholes, drivers that don't signal, mold, dilapidated houses, and all.
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him [email protected].