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Just me and a hurricane

It is Friday afternoon and I am floating. On my back. Off Doctor’s Cave Beach. In MoBay. Jamaica.

I have the ocean to myself. Really. You think, Oh, well, he means that it isn’t very crowded there. No. What I mean is I have the ocean to myself. As I float in this warm teal-colored sea and look all around me, there is nothing. No humans. No birds. Nothing.

How can this be? you wonder. Because maybe you have been to some remarkable beaches in the world, places where there is absolutely no access except by sea and then only if you are willing to take a tender offshore and then slog your way through heavy surf and still…still…when you crawled onto that remote beach with sand as white and virginal as Sleeping Beauty, you found a small group of nut-colored Italians sunbathing in the nude. You found found several lobster-colored snorkelers, all quite drunk and sporting T-shirts from the 1998 NCAA Final Four covering their bright red bellies.

So, you wonder, how can I say that I am floating in Montego Bay in the most lovely of Caribbean waters and I have the entire goddamn ocean to myself?

One word: hurricane.

The hurricane season in Jamaica officially runs from June 1 to November 30 but the height—the time when you’re most likely to encounter that meteorological beast that stalks the Caribbean hurricane belt like a chain-saw wielding ghoul in a teen horror flick is August and early October. Which would be…now.

Ever since I arrived on the island, everyone has been loosely tracking the slow approach of a storm that has veered through the Caribbean like a badly-injured prize fighter, lurching this way and that, picking up strength and then loosing it, bobbing, weaving, jabbing. Now they say it will, in fact, cross Jamaica. At Kingston? Ocho Rios? Montego Bay? That is the question.

But the word around noon today was: It’s coming.

So everyone has taken refuge. Hiding in their hotel rooms after following instructions to move all patio furniture inside, close shutters and drapes, STAY AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS.

And I did all that. And then I looked out across Doctor’s Cave beach and it was so calm. So beautiful. So deserted. Why not go for a swim?

Calm before the storm. With no tourists, no beach chairs, just...the sea.

Calm before the storm. With no tourists, no beach chairs, just...the sea.

Now I am out here all alone. Except for a single frigate bird that, just as I am meditating on my solitude, breaks my zen thought process as he desperately flaps his wings on his way out to sea.

Coward, I think.

And as I am thinking this, a beefy hotel lifeguard in a white polo shirt and red swim trunks cups his hands and yells out across the water, “Mon…mon! Get out of da water, mon! Hurricane coming!”

I wave at him and go back to floating on my back. After all, how often is it that we find ourselves swimming in the ocean in the precious few moments of calm just before a hurricane hits? Never.

Besides, the ocean is mine. And I like that. So I slowly do the backstroke, moving away from shore, wondering if the lifeguard will let me go. Like a buoy cut loose. Or a boat freed from its mooring.

When I dare to look up, he is gone. The beach deserted.

Damn, this is fine. Not only do I own all of Doctor’s Cave, I own all of the beaches for as far as the eye can see. At least until the storm hits. If it hits.

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Charles Gordon Market in MoBay

This morning Lincoln picks me up in front of the resort promptly at ten and we head directly for Montego Bay’s largest fruit and vegetable bazaar, the Charles Gordon Market, a dark, ancient hall filled with wooden stalls heaped with odd spinach-like greens called callaloo and the peculiar-looking cho-cho which tastes like squash and is used in soups and stews.

Charles Gordon Market in MoBay. Photo by Reena Bammi.

Charles Gordon Market in MoBay. Photo by Reena Bammi.

There are bananas that smell of vanilla and custard, and coconuts in different stages of ripening, including “jellies,” green coconuts whose pudding-like meat is so soft it is fed to babies. There are mounds of mangos, guava, and breadfruit the size of large grapefruit, sweet potatoes ripe plantains, and stall after stall offering up “fresh goatflesh” for 280 Jamaican dollars for a pound (about $3.20 U.S.)

Lincoln introduces me to an old granny sitting in front of a pyramid of okra. “Good for the back,” she says, holding one of the fuzzy green cylinders out to me. Says Lincoln, “If you don’t get okra with your steamed fish, you’re not getting steam fish. Gotsta have the okra.”

This isn’t the sort of place where you’d run into Martha Stewart if she were on the island or even Anthony Bourdain, for that matter. The poverty is palpable, the hygiene iffy at best, and there’s a vague ominous feel to the place (Lincoln asked me not to bring a camera with me). Still, it’s fascinating. Particularly the herbs and spices section of the market where you’ll find bundles of fresh and dried herbs, both to cook with and to cure whatever ails you. Something called Leaves of Life, recommended for those with chest colds, is hawked by a toothless women who also sells homemade concoctions for diabetes, diahrea, and female problems.

Lincoln buys us both a round, yellow-green palm jelly fruit. The vendor hacks off the tops with a machete and sticks a straw in each. I suck down the sweet, refreshing liquid and think about having another, but Lincoln suggests one might be enough, adding, while leading me back towards the car, that if I should “feel uncomfortable” in the stomach while eating in Jamaica, the best cure is a shot of Overproof. “It kill everytin in da stomach,” he assures me.

Good to know. Maybe this afternoon I’ll stop by the Cohoba Lounge again and see if Dalton the rummier is around. You can’t be too careful.

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Dalton the “rummier”

It’s late in the afternoon—tea time—at the Cohoba Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton in Jamaica. But nobody is having tea. At least no one I see. But, you know, they’ve got that British tradition thing going here and the little resort newsletter that was slipped under my door this morning while I was still deep asleep suggested I enjoy “Caribbean appetizers and afternoon tea in old-world style” in the lounge.

Well, I wasn’t really too interested in tea (a bit too hot for that) but thought I’d come down to have a look anyway. What I found was a very stylish bar with dark wood paneling, ceiling fans slowly spinning overhead. Some scratchy 40’s jazz was playing in the background while men in plantation suits munched from bowls of potato chips and sipped Negroni cocktails.

Everyone looked a bit flushed, whether from the aged Appleton rum infused cocktails that are a specialty here or from the sun it was impossible to tell, though I’m guessing from the periodic bursts of laughter and boisterous conversation all around that it was more rum than sun.

I’m just about to order a Negroni myself (one of the great, largely-forgotten cocktails of our time) when a voice cuts through the bar chatter announcing a rum tasting “for those of you who might be interested.”

The man speaking is Dalton Kirlew, the hotel’s “rummier.” Who knew there was such a thing? Amazingly enough, I’m the only one in the lounge to take Dalton up on his offer to sample some of the 150 varieties of Caribbean rum (including 70 from Jamaica) that the bar carries.

“Well, looks like just you and me,” Dalton says with a smile as he pours me a very small taste (“That’s all you’re going to want,” he warns me) of Overproof rum, a rather vile 63% proof alcohol that Dalton says is the “poor man’s rum.” This is what everyone on the island drinks, he says, partly because it has such a kick but also because it is very, very cheap. You go anywhere in Jamaica and order a mai tai or a daiquiri and this is what it’s going to be made of, he says.

“Now, the older people on the island like to mix this with coconut water. That’s the typical drink in a local bar. Coconut water is said to ‘cleanse the heart,’” he says, chuckling. “Though I don’t know about that. Some say this rum will make your hair turn white.”

If you want to be like the locals, Dalton tells me, you go to a roadside bar and order a “que,” which is a quarter bottle of Overproof and a side of coconut water. “But you don’t want to do that,” he says.

Dalton is right; I don’t want more than a taste of the Overproof. To wash the petrol oil out of my mouth, he gives me a very smooth Appleton that has been aged for 21 years. It’s the color of a good whisky and tastes as lovely with a bit of caramel and vanilla on the tongue.

Dalton says, “Now with the Appleton, you don’t need any coconut water. In fact, it would be a shame to mix it with anything.”

And he’s right. Which is why I politely refuse Dalton’s follow-up offer of a Wray & Nephew Coco Mania, a coconut-flavored rum whose name alone is reason enough to decline it.

“If you don’t mind,” I tell Dalton, “I think maybe I’ll just stick with the Appleton.”

Dalton smiles. “Well, that’s what I’d do,” he says. “Stick with the Appleton.”

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Out of many, one people

What do you suppose became of the Garden of Eden after Adam noshed on that forbidden fruit? I mean, it was still a pretty nice place, right? Lush. Tropical. All kinds of interesting things to eat. Swaying palms, cool water, gorgeous views.

There’s something of that Garden-of-Eden-after-the-fall feel about Jamaica. Not in an idealized Shangri-la sort of way, though there’s plenty of that as well, but more in a Mutiny on the Bounty sense. You know, people who left wherever they were from and ended up in Jamaica because, frankly, things weren’t going so well back home and it was pretty damn nice on this island.

The Jamaicans have this saying—Out of many, one people. It’s not like some trite license plate motto. It really reflects who they are. That their most distant relative was a slave from Ghana. That their great-great uncle was a Jewish trader from Portugal. Their mother’s old aunt a nanny from Scotland.

When I ask my driver, Lincoln, about his family, he just laughs. “We come from everywhere,” he says. “South America, Spain, India. I think one of my grandmothers way back was Chinese.”

Out of many, one people. You see?

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The scene Sunday afternoon outside Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica, was biblical. A Babel of young Jamaican men in colorful shirts dashing amongst dazed travelers, myself included, calling out, “Sir, where you going?” “Sir, what hotel, please.” “This way, sir, this way.”

Duffel bags, stained backpacks, limp garment bags, golf cases, and enormous Pullmans were all hurriedly stacked onto carts and wheeled into a parking lot filled with limousines, vans, mini-buses, taxis, and tour buses, most in shocking Caribbean colors—lime, teal, butterscotch.

I stood in the bright tropical sunlight, wondering what lunacy led me to wear a black silk sports coat on the plane, waiting for my pre-arranged car from the Ritz-Carlton. The hustle and bustle all around made me feel a bit like a plump red snapper in shark-infested waters as one young man after another insisted I follow him, then darted away, quickly repelled, when I mumbled something about waiting for a car from the Ritz.

All except two gregarious young men in vivid red shirts who sniffed indecision in my wilting demeanor and moved in for a closer look. When I told them the resort was supposed to be sending a car, they happily nodded and grabbed my luggage from the curb. “Yes, sir, yes, sir…a car to the Ritz.” Within seconds, my bags were in the back of their van and I was seated, alone, in the middle of a stifling-hot vehicle with threadbare tires, feeling rather certain this was not the Ritz Town Car I was told would pick me up.

I suppose I could have made a scene but, frankly, I didn’t have the spirit. Not after 14 hours of travel. Besides, the young men who snatched me up seemed nice enough, in a profiteering, kidnapping sort of way. So what the heck.

The men climbed into the front of the van and smiled appreciatively at me as they evaluated their catch of the day.

Just as we were about to pull away, there was a belligerent thump on the van door and there, looking all cool and crisp and elegant, was a muscular young man in pressed navy blue slacks and a white polo shirt with the Ritz-Carlton logo on it.

“Mr. Lansing?”


My driver, Mr. Lincoln Pryce.

My driver, Mr. Lincoln Pryce.

“My name is Lincoln.” (I kid you not.) “I’m very sorry for the delay. Come with me please.”

And then Lincoln snarled at the two slender men in pale blue shirts and in some sort of sing-songy threatening patois, told my two abductors that they were to take my luggage out of their hot, dirty van and release me immediately. My former captors, believe it or not, immediately followed his instructions and within seconds, I was sitting in the back of Lincoln’s well-chilled Town Car (the irony of car and driver—I know). My former captives smiled and waved as Lincoln pulled away. Feeling oddly remorseful (Stockholm syndrome?), I waved back. I’m sure they meant well. No harm, no foul.

As we started rolling through Montego Bay, Lincoln turned around and gave me a big smile. “Welcome to Jamaica,” he said as the tinted window rolled back up, sealing us in a soothing cool from the ragged tropical heat outside.


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