Why, we even refused to live in the dorms with these namby-pambies, opting instead to rent and share a flat several tube stops away from school. Never mind that the whole semester went awry when our freakish landlord shut down the building, effectively forcing us to go live in a crowded, cold, pay-by-the-day youth hostel. Never mind that I remained sick with chills the rest of the winter and had to sleep in a bunk bed and was broke. Never mind all that. I was and would always be an adventurer--even if it sucked.
So when it came time to head to Jamaica for my honeymoon, I turned my nose up at the prospect of an all-inclusive resort, where visitors are discouraged from leaving the expansive grounds. How could I do that? How could I go for the first time to this island nation--one that had fascinated me since I first heard Bob Marley's "Exodus" in my pre-teen years--and restrict my activities to a few acres behind a gate? How could I not go see downtown Kingston, Negril, the mountains? How could I refrain from frolicking with the Jamaicans?
The answer was: I wouldn't. We'd go there, Marty and I, to the all-inclusive resort--because it was priced right--but we'd leave a lot. We'd get cabs, explore the island. How bad could it be? Surely all the negative stuff we'd been hearing was just paranoid hype from sheltered, white-bread Americans. Screw the stories of cabbies carrying machetes under their seats and tourists getting dragged off and beaten when they wouldn't buy this or that woodcarving. Pshaw! Hogwash! This was Jamaica, land of swaying palm trees, reggae, mangoes, and other happy stuff like that.
We landed at Montego Bay, all bright-eyed, and I quickly ascertained that the country was a seething mess. The airport was rotted out and looked like something from the 1940s, and we were swarmed by predatory types trying to sell us pot. Within five minutes I was locked in a torn-up bathroom stall. The door, which went entirely from ceiling to floor, had no handle and wouldn't open once I'd closed it. This necessitated my calling out feebly to whomever lurked near. A nice way to start your vacation.
In a few minutes we were in a VW-bus-type mobile ambling down the one paved road, hugging the coast as we passed cows and goats standing around in open fields looking malnourished and unattended. Some were in the road. We whizzed by rows of shanties occasionally interrupted by nice-looking houses abandoned midconstruction. Places of commerce announced their existence with hand-written signs. Crap was strewn everywhere. The shuttle driver careened through the towns of Duncan and Falmouth, and each looked like it'd been under siege, so vast and dense was the poverty and general damage. My desire to fold in with the locals went completely flaccid.
The pothole-filled roadways of Jamaica were lawless. Folks drove on the left side and passed each other with great vim and vigor though oncoming traffic was just feet away. This made the woman in the back of our van scream out regularly. She would wail in fear and the driver would laugh. He told us "passing" in Jamaica was called "overtaking." We hurtled past a sign that read "The undertaker loves the overtaker. Please slow down." This also made him laugh.
After an hour of this, we pulled into our resort. Our arrival was a disorienting shock after surveying all that squalor. A manicured golf course and tropical-colored guard gates unfolded before us. A pang of guilt seared my stomach, but it was quickly replaced with relief, as a tong-wielding gentleman handed us wet washcloths to wipe away the road sweat. That set the tone for the six days and seven nights we spent there.
The place looked like a Disney rendition of Jamaica, a Jamaica that Americans envision in their happy heads, what with its two-block "town square" filled with affably bright-hued buildings and a tinkling fountain surrounding by hibiscus. Bob Marley's more uplifting numbers--the ones that didn't overtly discuss poverty and oppression--were piped through speakers, day and night. Employees wore Hawaiian shirts and laughed a lot. It was false, all of it. Outside the gates lay another world altogether. I was counting on the alcohol to help me deal with the unsettling dichotomy.
It did, within hours. And then, magically, days had passed and I had unwittingly relaxed into the highly packaged luxury. The food seemed to be as much of a sedative as the alcohol. Lavish buffets were set out every day--or room service came if you asked them--and there were no bills. We'd paid one price for all of it, months ago. At night, when the Jamaican tree frogs came out to serenade us with their shrill but intoxicating chorus of "oo-tweet, oo-tweet," the resort's excellent restaurants opened and beckoned you: Sit, eat, admire the crazy spray of stars in the sky above, and then meander away--maybe to the beach, maybe to the disco . . .
The consumption was potentially obscene. You could have any drink you wanted at any time. You could have 15 drinks in one afternoon. Or 200 cookies from the bakery. Or 55 shrimp from the open-air buffet. Or eight orders of jerk chicken. It was all there, smiling at you, stroking you. You'd be asleep on the beach and the fruit lady would appear in her gingham skirt and ruffled top, asking you what kind of fruit you'd like today. She'd sing while peeling your papaya. The resort even brought in street vendors and had them set up in the "town square" so you didn't have to venture out to pay $35 for a wooden fish mobile that was worth $8 tops.
Sure, the habitat was manufactured. Palm trees don't really grow on the beach; they have to be planted there. And all those flowers were transplanted. For all I know even the tree frogs had been shipped in. But so what? For a few days, it didn't seem to matter. The relaxation was profound. We lay on the beach, alternately sleeping and reading, talking and staring off into space. I had a massage under some grape and almond trees. We lay in hammocks, ate jerk lamb chops for lunch. We snorkeled on a reef while holding hands, because it was our honeymoon and that's what couples do, according to all the travel catalogs. There were the countless banana daiquiris, and bonding with folks over same. There was an anesthesiologist who'd gone to Marty's alma mater, a hearing-impaired redhead from Hartford, a jovial Halifax-born mom who lived in Virginia Beach, a conservative honeymooning couple from Long Island.
The resort had a nude side and prude side. Oh, it was fun to go over to the nude side and comment on all the fake breasts. "Why on earth would she get them that big? Doesn't that hurt? That looks like one of those plastic chests you buy for Halloween." And it was interesting to see a woman who resembled my long-ago babysitter Irene, naked and minus any tan lines. And sure, it was a neat diversion to don a life jacket and nothing else to paddle around in the clear sea in a kayak.
But after a while, all that ease started making me restless. I finally woke up when I saw a security guard standing on the beach where the resort's property ends. Why was he there? To keep marauders out? To keep us in? His presence reminded me of the existence of the rest of the world, and jarred me from my all-inclusive stupor.
We checked the schedule of off-the-property excursions. Naked horseback riding for $55 each. (Yikes!) Getting "kissed and caressed by dolphins" for $40 each. (What?) Dancing at sunset on a catamaran for $45 each. (Too forced.) Or, for $75 each, a day's visit to a resort called Hedonism III, which, we were told, is basically a nonstop orgy. (Whoa!) Most of the offerings were either too tourist-y or too . . . strange. And the prices were a definite disincentive. Clearly the resort just wanted you to stay put--even though they could save on food and alcohol if you made yourself scarce. Maybe the resort doesn't want families to sue over the bludgeoning death of loved ones who ventured beyond the gate, I thought.
Hey, came my second thought, where's that attitude coming from?
Marty and I opted for a trip to Dunns River Falls, famed waterfalls seen on many a Jamaican travel brochure. Splashing water; rainforest-looking flora all around and people holding hands, making a human chain and climbing the rocks--that sort of thing. We called the tour lady to arrange it. The next day, she called us back to cancel. It turned out nobody else at the resort wanted to go to the falls that day. I guess they were all donning condoms and heading to Hedonism III. Marty seemed relieved; he was happy to keep sipping Red Stripe and commenting on the implants. Me, I had to satisfy my inner adventurer--what was left of her anyway. I just had to leave Eden. So the resort got us a cab, made sure we felt comfortable with the driver, and we headed east toward Ocho Rios.
The guy was nice enough, filling us with Jamaica fun facts, collecting our $80. He told us Kingston was so rough he wouldn't go there. He told us the unemployment rate was 12 percent in Jamaica, that about 35 percent of the people live below the poverty line, that some mini-wars broke out recently because the police were harassing drug lords. Before we reached the falls, he stopped so we could rent water shoes (another $10) at a scary roadside stand. I sought out the bathroom there and ended up in the bowels of someone's wobbly house, peeing in the dark. When I emerged and began to make my way back to the street, a spaced-out and wizened old woman appeared and looked at me like I was a visitor from another planet.
Dropped off a few minutes later, we folded in with the stream of tourists and locals walking downhill to the bottom of the multilevel falls. There, a sinister carnival energy filled the air. Shrill Jamaican women loudly offered to braid my hair. A big man dressed as a woman in a tropical hat led around a stunted donkey that had a huge, erect penis. When I was without Marty for even an instant--when he'd stop to read a map or adjust his sandals or go to the bathroom--the "Hey, bay-beeee" crap would start. I constituted prey--any woman without a man did. I was swept back to that semester in London, to spring break, when I took off for Nice by myself. I was there for 10 days but never got any peace. I learned the hard way that a female alone anywhere close to the Mediterranean is constantly pawed at, hounded, followed--no matter how much acne or extra college poundage she is sporting. This is what free-range Jamaica felt like. I began fantasizing about the resort, the safe, quiet, cocoonlike resort. I was ashamed of the fantasizing, but that didn't stop it.
The falls were pretty enough, rushing water and all that. Laughing, Spandex-covered humanity was everywhere, blanketing the falls like ants on a piece of ribbon candy. This was somehow comforting, not disgusting. I guess my inner traveler was really sick. Maybe she was dying. Marty climbed all the way up. I climbed half way, fearing for my malformed knees, which have dislocated twice due to water pressure and several times from slipping. All I could think of was how long it would take a Jamaican ambulance to get there, and how dirty the instruments must be in the hospitals.
Before releasing you to the parking lot--where our driver said he'd wait--Dunns River Park directs you through a tight, winding maze of aggressive street vendors selling wooden Bob Marley heads and beaded necklaces. Each sat by his or her wares and made it a personal mission not to let you pass without buying some useless trinket for $50. The harassment was intense. "What do ya want? A walkin' stick? Ganja? Beads? I got it for ya. I got it! How much money do ya have? Hey, hey, hey--what do ya want? I got it!" I made it my policy to just keep walking and repeating the mantra: "No, no, no, no." But Marty got stuck. It was fun to double back and spring him loose by playing the bitchy wife, barking, "Honey, c'mon!"
When we broke free and emerged into the parking lot, our driver was not there. "Great," Marty said. "This is where we die." I concurred. Obviously, my inner adventurer had withered to nothing. But I was 35 now, and married. Perhaps it was time to let her go.
We gingerly serpentined around the torn-up lot looking for our guy, but each of the squat, European-style vans looked the same, and he was not in any of them. We considered approaching the coplike beings in skinny glass booths, but they seemed just as menacing as everyone else. We figured we'd wait it out. Maybe our man went off to lunch or something, and would be back soon. I went to the loo to wash the sweat off my face and saw a fight break out. A woman ran out of the dirty bathroom screaming at a man in the English/French patois many Jamaicans speak. She was out of control, whirling about in anger. A bad electricity went through the crowd. We changed our minds about waiting passively for the driver and went deep into the parking lot again. And there he was, in the farthest-flung spot on the lot, eating some white mash from a Tupperware container.
Back at the resort an hour later, I collapsed into a padded chaise lounge. I ordered lamb chops and a Margarita. I breathed. In the distance, a happy worker approached with a bottle full of rosewater to spray on sweaty tourists. I knew deep down that saying "yes" to the pressurized emollients would kill off what remained of the weak and dying scrappy backpacker at my core. The rosewater, the decadence of having it sprayed on me--that would finish the job.
And suddenly she was there, a smiling woman in clean white shorts, posing the pivotal question. "Would ya like some of our mahgic potion ta cure da heat?"
I blurted it out. "Great! Yes! Please!"
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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