Posted November 14, 2013
By KATHERINE GUEST
OCHO RIOS, Jamaica — Jamaica is a wonderful vacation destination, especially for those Canadians who say “eh” that’ll fit right in with the Jamaicans who say “ya mon.”
Typically on the cheaper end of Caribbean islands, Jamaica is filled with kind people and fun music but does include its share of dangers. For first timers, research should be done in advance, for 18 year olds by themselves, adults should be informed. I was that 18 year old who told no one except the other 18 year old that was traveling with me that we were going to Jamaica.
When taking your very first steps as a baby before age 1, your parents are there. So, when you later take your first steps out of North America at age 18 you should probably let them be there for that, too. Worried I wouldn’t be given permission to go, I purposely did not tell my parents or any adult for that matter, that I had planned a trip with another 18 year old to a resort in Ocho Rios.
I learned quite a few lessons on that trip that I will take with me on the rest of my lifetime travels but the three most important taught me that; you can stray from the resort guided tours and have the first hand tour of a lifetime from a kind local, if a complete stranger on a plane goes out of their way to show concern for you do yourself the favor and listen closely, and finally, don’t hang around or get in the middle of territorial gang fights (that you may or may not have started).
All of these taught me about people and their humanity, and not to judge people or places just based on the general warnings people give to travelers but they also taught me that those warnings are real and having a parent or adult know your travels could be your only way out of trouble.
It felt like freedom stepping onto the Caribbean Air flight from Fort Lauderdale. I was going on an adventure and not telling anyone and it was going to be a story for the books. Little did I realize at the time I would end up doing everything that travel agents warn you should not do while traveling in a country with a police force that cannot help foreigners.
We arrived in northern Jamaica, in the city of Montego Bay and took a two-hour shuttle bus ride around the island to Ocho Rios, where we would be staying. My jaw sat open the entire ride because I had never seen palm trees combined with mountains and I was also royally impressed with myself for booking this four-day vacation for less than $1,400.
Upon arriving at the Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort and Spa (after dark) we received the first of many squinting looks that said “you are too young… where are your parents? Did you run away? Why are you by yourselves?”
To which we replied with giant smiles and ignorance. A walk along the beach that night didn’t give us any more idea as to what the surrounding land looked like because of the low amounts of light pollution. We had a beautiful view of the stars and on our way back met a man warming himself in front of a small fire. We chatted politely for a few moments and headed back to the resort knowing we had made at least one local friend.
Looking out the balcony of our room, I saw just a vast blackness and a small parking lot at the base of the building. To my surprise, the morning light uncovered a vast turqouise ocean that was the dark mass I had seen the night before. To the left was the water and to the right we overlooked the town of Ocho Rios with the Blue Mountains looming in the background. At this point the perma-smiles were put into place.
The next morning we headed down the breakfast buffet where the head waiter deemed my fellow traveler ‘Harry Potter’ for his scruffy hair and glasses look. Looking around the resort was just like looking at the photos on the website.
The resort had water slides, well-set tables always available for eating, a beach on the bay and the staff, who we learned, loved to tell jokes. We also noticed that we were two of many many Canadians visiting for the weekend. This trip seemed like a breeze, who needed parents?
In the afternoon we decided to walk into town to see the local market. It was there that I realized I am too weak for the haggling business. Women grabbed my hand left and right asking for prices far too high for the bracelets that I admit, I did like. We walked in with $20 and walked out with $1 and so many small collectables they wouldn’t even fit into our bags.
Walking up the road towards the mountain, I realized there was a man following us, and the adrenaline set in. We stopped and pretended to be talking by the side of the road when suddenly the man approached us. He appeared to be older, probably in his 50’s, and had barely anything left of the shoes he was wearing. My traveling partner stood in front of me and said “Hi can I help you?” and the man broke out a big goofy grin and said “There are some gardens on the side of the mountain if you would like me to take you, I’ll give you a tour.”
We were skeptical, but he insisted. We walked behind him some distance. I have walked up a small mountain before but nothing could have prepared us for this hike in the Jamaican humidity.
About 20 minutes up the mountain road, we stopped at a small restaurant that didn’t appear to be open for the day yet. He led us through the back, politely greeting the workers prepping the tables, and out into the back where the most magnificent wild garden grew. There was a waterfall and stream that flowed down the side of the mountain and all along the sides were flowers and plants that I have never noticed in North America before. He
took us on a walking tour and taught us all about the plants and what they can be used for and even took a few photos for us.
As we finished at the garden he said we needed to see one more spot. Putting an enormous amount of trust in a man we just met, we continued up the road and were clearly the only non-locals around. The next stop was a small café on the edge of the road and when we stood on the balcony we were looking down at all of Ocho Rios and could see our resort on the edge of the bay. The view was beautiful even though the two of us were completely out of breath from the hike.
We walked out of the café and planned on taking ourselves back down the mountain but the man had other ideas. A taxi suddenly appeared and he seemed to know the driver. The man turned to us and said “It’s too far to walk up the rest of the mountain but he can drive us for free, he’s my friend.”
Quickly scrolling through all of the risks in my head, I turned to my traveling partner and said, “They’re two skinny men, you could protect me from both of them and worst case we bail from the car,” and he agreed. We got into the car.
The roads on the Blue Mountains of Jamaica are paved with potholes and this car ride to the top of the mountain was like a violent roller coaster. At some points along the way I found myself sticking my head out of the window not for the breeze but rather in case my breakfast visited me again from car sickness.
Along the winding roads of the brush and farms we learned that our guide was named George and our kind taxi driver was Marlin. Marlin slowed the car at a few look outs along the way for us to snap a few photos since by this point I was comfortable enough to bring out my Nikon camera.
When we made it to the top, he parked the car and took us to a farmer’s field where we could see down the entire side of the mountain.
George and Marlin gave us a history lesson on the trip back down the mountain and we drove through the back side where the local villages were located. As children saw us drove by near the school screams and laughter erupted and as George explained was due to my blonde ponytail of hair.
We were returned to the very front door of the resort and although neither man ever asked for a cent for their tour services we gave them what little cash we had left in our room. What could have been a horror story ended up being the most magical way of touring the Blue Mountains above Ocho Rios. We didn’t know was that this was not going to be our last drive through those mountains.
Back on the beach the next day we drank our small slushy juices laced with various alcohols and lounged in the sun. We attempted some of the resort activities, the best one by far was the snorkeling. We swam all along the edge of the resort and saw all sorts of fish, shells and sand creatures. It was only my second time snorkeling and it definitely set the stage for future longing to learn how to scuba.
That afternoon my traveling partner decided we should go along the beach and check out the Jet Skis that could be rented. About 20 feet from the Jet Skis parked in the wading waters we ran into our first Jamaican friend we met our first night at the resort. He offered us a rather steep price for a half hour ride so we said thanks and kept walking. We asked the two men sitting right next to the jet skis what price they could offer and when they gave us a better price we decided to take it.
Suddenly yelling breaks out and the fire man from the first night begins a fight with the two men that gave us a new price. The two of us took two steps back and then two more as the men argued about territories and money and a couple more men emerged from the background. We accidentally landed ourselves in the middle of a territorial gang-like argument.
We waited and thought very seriously about leaving but then one of the men, who we had agreed to pay the lower price to, helped us to one of the Jet Skis with life jackets. We were given a half hour and for my first time on a Jet Ski it was a thrilling half hour. We shot out throughout the bay and looked back to see the men still arguing.
Once we brought the Jet Ski back in to the beach we hurriedly dropped the life jackets and jogged back along the beach to the resort yelling some thank you’s over our shoulders. In our rush we left our sunglasses behind but neither of us was particularly concerned.
Yet another thrilling adventure that had a happy ending and still, no parents knew.
Our last day passed by and it was time for us to fly back over to mainland America. The night before we departed, a storm hit Jamaica and when we went to leave the next morning we were told that trees had fallen on the road we were meant to take back to the airport.
With a tight deadline and many passengers to pick up along the way our mini-bus driver decided to take a detour, into the mountain passes.
Back up that unpaved mountain we drove and even with some reggae playing in our headphones and the sun just beginning to rise, nothing could distract me from the nausea that was setting in. I learned that mountain drives are fun but only the first time in a country with unpaved roads.
Back at the airport, we were schedule to have a layover in Kingston and continue on back to Fort Lauderdale. On the first flight we sat next to a kind older woman who spent the entire flight severely concerned for us for the simple fact that we were the only two Caucasian people on the plane on its way to the most dangerous city in Jamaica. She insisted we either do not go anywhere in the airport that we are not within eye site of a security guard or we travel through Kingston with her.
“You must not go anywhere alone, you are not safe,” she warned. “I can help you to be safe, if you travel with local you are going to be safer.”
Since we only had a layover we politely declined her offer but took heed to her warning.
During the two hour layover we ate overpriced Burger King and sat directly across the hallway from the security office. Usually oblivious to the race of people surrounding me I became hyper-aware that I stood out as the only Caucasian woman and that was collecting a lot of attention from strangers around me. I was perfectly safe in that airport but for the first time in my life realized what it was like to be a minority and it was not the realization of my race but rather the amount of attention and stares it gathered from others.
We boarded our last flight home and upon arriving at Fort Lauderdale airport customs received the final and most obvious stare of confusion at our age. The customs officer questioned my traveling partner and me for a few lengthy minutes about why we were traveling without parents and if we had parents and if we were related (we aren’t for the record). Even though our answers didn’t lessen his confusion at all, he let us through and we continued on our way back down I-95 to the big city of Miami.
On my next trip outside of North America, or anywhere for that matter, I will be informing my parents. When they did find out months after the trip they were both mortified I had gone to place with such notorious crime rates and not bothered to tell an adult.
Seeing first-hand the number of risks we took on that trip (even though everything ended up okay) I now would rather have a person on the outside be able to help me out of a sticky situation.