Posted by: morrowsl | May 25, 2011

The land of “No Problem”

While the idea of leaving the states was never something I felt I wanted to do, having an opportunity to spend four days with most of my family in a tropical paradise ended up being one of the most interesting trips I’ve ever been on.  I missed my sister and my oldest daughter.  And my grandson.  But I got to spend some quality time with my niece and my youngest daughter, and to finally have some relaxing conversations with my (hopefully) son-in-law-to-be.  If you add the extended family my new daughter-in-law brings to the mix, and the families of the firemen who work with my son, it was almost as good as Christmas.

Setting aside all of the issues that plagued us, arriving in Jamaica was almost dreamlike.  Two things hit me as soon as I came off the plane.  The first being the reek of cannabis that seemed to permeate the very walls of the endless hallway we followed.  Like good little lemmings we walked and walked, twisting and turning like a test driver on switchbacks, listening intently to the Jamaican patois and hoping to catch even three familiar words.  I managed “immigration” and “customs”, and finally, “open” as a cleaning woman exited the bathroom I was determined to enter.  As I sat and sighed with relief it dawned on me that I could possibly spend the next four days in a full contact high and that, twenty-five years ago, I would have really appreciated the buzz.

The second thing that caught my attention like a brick bat to the noggin was the humidity.  Before I even made it to the bathroom I was sweating like a…  well, let’s just say profusely and be done, ok?  I gave a second thought to the capri pants and 3/4 sleeved shirts I’d packed.  And laughed at myself for including a sweater of all things!  Who knew?  So, I am here to tell anyone considering a trip “down island” that humidity in Jamaica is like humidity in Houston.  On steroids.  The locals all seemed to handle it with little thought, of course.  The women wore dress shirts and long slacks or skirts.  None of the men wore shorts.  They looked much the same as anyone working in an airport stateside – calm, cool, comfortable.  I was wishing for a fan and better A/C.

Once through the maze of airport security, immigration (THAT will give you pause the first time you hear it as related to your own person!!) and customs, and onto our shuttle for the hour and a half ride to our resort, I began to cool off and relax for the first time in days.  Our driver, Kevin, claimed to be useless as a tour guide, but managed to answer all of our questions quickly and completely and told us something interesting about every single village or parish we drove through on the way down the A1 from Montego Bay to Negril.

As Kevin negotiated our path from The Queens Drive to the coast road, it quickly became apparent that we’d arrived at peak rush hour.  The streets and sidewalks were jammed with cars and people, looking very much like any Dallas neighborhood at the same hour of the day.  The huge difference was the number of people standing IN the narrow street with armloads of goods for sale.  Even more astonishing was how close we came to hitting cars and pedestrians alike at a speed I didn’t credit the shuttle bus with being able to achieve.  Neither were Kevin’s concern as he motored us crazily through the melee, honking all the while, foot firmly to the floor and braking only at the last possible second.  He suggested I open the curtains and take in the views.  I suppose he was tired of hearing me scream…

A huge cruise ship sat in Montego Bay harbor which, according to Kevin, is naturally deep enough to accommodate the behemoths with ease.  He explained that the guests are off-loaded for site-seeing and shopping at the gigantic outdoor market; the smart ones stick close together and hold tight to their purses.  I think he wanted us to know that it is possible to experience his country without being afraid although there are certainly things to be afraid of.  And I think that holds true no matter where you travel.  Still, I appreciated his candor.

We passed the new “football” stadium and Mike asked if the Jamaican National Team played there.  Kevin said they sometimes come to town, but mostly play in Kingston.  This stadium was for the long-time champion High School team!!  And so I determined that Texas and Jamaica have at least one common denominator – we will spend as much money as necessary to support the home team – football or futbol.

There are a great many schools in Jamaica which gives you some idea of how important children are there.  Each school wears a different paint color and the girls wear uniforms that match the color of their school building.  The boys wear a brown uniform that closely resembles those worn by UPS drivers.  Watching the kids walking down the sidewalks was like watching a field of flowers dancing on the wind.  And made me realize that we could do a much better job of drawing the interest of our own school children if we’d allow them to ditch the standard navy and white and let them wear bright colors!!

Two sights stood out in my mind well enough that I remembered to look for them on the return trip.  The first was the huge water-wheel up the hill at Tryall.  Built in the 1700s for sugar cane production, it is still in operation.  I would have loved the time for a tour!!  The second was the town clock in the square at Lucea; almost 200 years old and still keeping precise time!  The legend is it was bound for St Lucia but got shipped to Lucea instead and the towns people were so proud to have it they refused to send it on.  Given what I now know about the land of “no problem”, this comes as no surprise.

While I still question our soundness, we arrived at our final destination safe at least and offered Kevin our heartfelt thanks for the ride and the history lessons.  And at this point I will say, only once, that had our visit been worry-free and without all the many frustrations caused by our inept travel agent, I could have easily seen us going back to Jamaica and possibly even back to Beaches Negril.  We were welcomed with cool citrus-scented towels and sent to the luxurious Great Room to sit and relax while our arrival paperwork was processed.  Marc met us there with frosty fruity drinks and began to give us a lay of the land.  Our booking was “all inclusive” which meant, for the next four days, all of our meals and drinks and much of our activities would be “free.”  This is a very dangerous thing!!  You can drink and eat yourself into a coma with that kind of mentality.

Our room (once we finally got the one we were supposed to have) was just as it appeared on the brochures.  Heavy four-poster beds with carved posts and inviting white linens, marble tiled floors and heavy draperies, French doors leading to a patio with a stunning view.  Paradise.

It was late enough on our first evening to just catch the sun setting over the emerald green water and, standing with my toes buried in the white sand and the sweet sea breeze brushing my shoulders, I realized why so many people find it so easy to abandon the states and live forever in the islands.  Reality is suspended and you can believe that you are meant for nothing more than just standing in the surf watching the sun recline.

Dinner was Tex-Mex the first night.  Marc and Mandy had reservations for a complimentary meal at the Italian restaurant, but joined the rest of us for cocktails before.  The meal was excellent, as were all the meals we had during the course of our stay, including the simple burgers offered at the all-night walk-up cafe.

Once we finished eating, we found the rest of the wedding party lounging on the Lanai with drinks and cigars.  Marc has discovered the camaraderie within the fire house that Mike once shared in the ready room.  Groups of men with somewhat dangerous jobs tend to form brotherhoods that are often as close or closer than family.  They work hard and smart then play like little boys when they get a chance.  Mike was immediately drawn into the fold and was happier there than I’ve seen him since the last time he was in the company of his former mates.  It was good to see him laughing and telling stories and listening to the youngsters telling tales.

At night the banana farmers burn off the excess leaves from their fields and the smoke drifts over the farms and down to the sea.  The first night it was bothersome, but not yet totally annoying.  That first night I went to bed with a slight headache but a full stomach, a happy heart, and the chatter of tree frogs surrounding me.  Tomorrow was my only son’s wedding day.

Jamaica mornings are cool and breezy.  The air is thick with smoke that eventually (thankfully!!) moves out to open water.  And on the breeze are the calls of some butt-ugly birds with amazingly beautiful songs.  After our showers we hit The Mill for breakfast.  Pretty much anything you can imagine to eat – the typical fare of scrambled eggs and bacon, cereals and breads, fruit so fresh it literally has sugar beads forming along the cut ends – and a lot of stuff you never considered – steamed fish and greens, and some sort of grain I have yet to figure out.  The coffee was hot and plentiful and tasty enough that I brought home several bags as gifts.  The dinning room at The Mill is open on all sides so that, if you sit near the outer edge, you catch the cool breezes.  Any closer to the interior where the kitchen sits and you’ll be glowing well before your eggs cool.  The resort has any number of feral cats that wander the walkways and flowerbeds, or sit and stare at you while you enjoy your breakfast hoping you’ll see fit to share a tidbit or two.

After breakfast we needed to find something to do for a few hours, so we donned our swimwear and hit the beach.  Once morning is full and the sea breeze has cleared the smoke from the sky, you can see quite far into the distances from your lounge chair under your thatch-roofed hut.  We sipped water and snoozed and contemplated a wedding in flip-flops and linen and snow-white satin.

For many years now I’ve given the new grooms in our family a token to mark their wedding day and a gift to pass on from father to daughter when future wedding days come.  I had selected for Marc a St. James cross from James Avery jewelers.  According to the description in the catalog, “James was the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. He was the first apostle to be martyred for his faith in Christ and was killed with a sword.  This cross in the shape of a sword honors James for his strength and courage.”  My son is my hero, a stalwart believer in his convictions and as strong and courageous as they come.  So it seemed only fitting to honor him with a cross that symbolizes the characteristics I admire in him.  It’s a bit masculine, but I could see a young woman one day being more than proud to wear her father’s wedding cross.  As Marc and his Best Man, and best friend, John, left the beach to get dressed for the four o’clock wedding, I asked John to make sure I got at least a few minutes alone with Marc before they joined the rest of the guys.  John was good to his word; my two sons, the one I brought into the world and the one I’ve loved since he was a young boy, stopped by our room on their way out.  I managed not to cry as I pinned Marc’s cross to his lapel.  We didn’t make eye contact, so I’m pretty sure he was biting his lip about as hard as I was.

For Mandy I chose a simple sterling bracelet and a ladybug charm.  I entered her room where the ever famous “secret ceremony” was in full swing with hot irons and hair spray, make-up and frilly little bits scattered everywhere.  Her ladies were dressed and attending the bride, fulfilling the fantasy that is surely most every little girl’s dream.  I’d seen her dress several times by now, but seeing it hanging in the doorway, so delicate and sweet, almost brought me to tears.  This was the day we’d all been waiting more than a year for.  This was the reason that none of the snafus really mattered.  This was her wedding day and all of those in the room with her would make certain nothing marred its perfection.

With my gift given, there wasn’t much need of me upstairs, so I headed to the bar to join the men and the rest of our family and friends.  The day was still crazy hot, but the sun had already started her long walk down the sky to the blue horizon at the water’s edge.  We milled around and took some pictures and suddenly it was time to go!!

The lads assembled at the end of the sidewalk while the rest of us made for the chairs on the beach.  I stopped short at the bridge and picked out a spot that would assure at least a few good shots of the wedding party.  There were others with cameras on the beach to pick up where mine would stop.  Marc looked relaxed, if a bit hot.  The rest of the crowd looked anxiously to the spot where Mandy and her father, Ed, would emerge.  It sounds corny to call a bride stunning on her wedding day, but stunning she was.  Ed seemed to be handling his part well enough and Mandy was all smiles.  I couldn’t see her mom, Marcia, but I’m pretty sure she was smiling through a few tears.  The minister stood to one side with Marc and Mandy under the arch of bamboo and gauze drapes with the beautiful blue green sea at their backs.  And in less than ten minutes it was done!  Thankfully.  I’m not sure Marc would have held up under the heat for a longer ceremony, although it must have been something like wearing bunker gear with a long-sleeve shirt and jacket.  I never realized how hot Mandy was until I heard her sigh with relief when the photographer whipped the train of her gown up and fanned it out behind her.

The entire wedding party literally ran back to their rooms to change into casual clothes for dinner.

As luck would have it, the resort chose Thursday to close all the restaurants and throw a huge party on the beach.  So, without having to endure the cost of a big sit-down dinner, we assembled ’round a table for 23 and had a wedding feast!!  Since Beaches Negril is a kid-friendly resort, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Zoe and a number of other familiar characters were on hand to entertain us.  Up to that point, I didn’t realize The Count could do the Sprinkler or Lawnmower.  The party lasted well into the night.

Friday was to be our only “free” day.  Most of our group decided to snorkel and met at the catamaran after breakfast for the short ride out to the reef.  Our captain and crew were awesome!!  They had us laughing and completely comfortable before we even left the beach.  This was my first time to be on a catamaran or to snorkel and I worried about getting seasick.  Thankfully I didn’t, nor did I drown myself trying to manipulate the 20″ flippers I had to wear.  I had an underwater camera, but without glasses or contacts I had no idea till we got back home if any of the pictures were good.  Most weren’t, but I’m not the least bit discouraged.  To say I loved snorkeling is a puny understatement.  I’ll go again and I’ll take more pictures.  I’m even considering getting a small stock of contact lenses to wear when glasses just won’t do.  Too bad I can no longer just wear them all day.

The reef where we snorkeled wasn’t quite as big as I’d hoped.  But then, had it been, I would have been so disappointed to leave it!!  Two of our crew took us in groups but we were allowed to be independent if we chose.  I’m not sure it was a choice really, but Mike and I seemed to stay off to ourselves.  Initially it had to do with equipment failure, or at least our combined failures at getting the equipment ON!!  Then it was a matter of actually seeing the things below and becoming so mesmerized by them that we were reluctant to move on.  Later on, I sort of wished we had stayed closer to the group; they were treated to gifts brought up by the guides – various starfish and a puffer fish – although I did find a starfish, needle fish and several other very colorful fishes.  Mike spent some time tracking a tiny stingray and saw a barracuda.  All in all, for a first time out it was incredible and I can’t wait to do it again.  At this point, I might even consider diving…

We were on the water for a couple of hours, so pretty much everyone ended up back in their rooms for a nap.  As evening fell the smoke became almost unbearable and staying in our room was certainly tempting, but we’d agreed to give the Italian restaurant a try after Marc’s yummy review, so we met up with Ed and Marcia, and Mo and Loyal for the evening.  Knowing it was our last night made us all a bit reluctant to see it end.  For the first time I wished we’d gone ahead and spent the money to stay on.  Marc, Mandy, and most of their wedding party had relocated to a private villa for another four days so we’d have had to arrange to meet them had we stayed or paid extra to go to their resort.  Maybe it’s better to just plan another trip later on to another beautiful island.

Saturday morning dawned smoke-filled and bittersweet.  We had a surprise for breakfast; I thought Mo and Loyal had departed long before sunrise so when the appeared at our table I was quite pleased!  I am still amazed that they both managed to fit all their belongings into backpacks!!  Maybe I should take lessons from them before I travel again.  We had time to eat and talk and take a few pictures, but all too soon it was time for them to go and for us to go pack.

The return shuttle ride was no less frightening than the arrival had been, especially with all our luggage piled up in the back of the bus; I kept envisioning a very fast stop followed by a blow to the head as someone’s over-packed bag came flying by.  But finally we were in the long, LONG line for security at the dingy and dismal Montego Bay airport.

As we gained altitude over the island I wasn’t all that sad to see it go.  The poverty there is so pronounced.  For all the money that pours into the country via tourism, there seems to be little that actually falls into use for improvements to the living conditions of the population at large.  There are signs of wealth – that stadium for one, large shiny-bright retail stores and office buildings for another – but the farther from the city you go the greater the number of tin shacks and clotheslines strung alongside rock-lined streams.  It is hard not to feel ashamed for having the means to enjoy such luxury when such poverty exists right there in your face.

I know as time passes and puts distance between us and the problems we encountered, we’ll laugh about it  (some of us surely have already!!) and when I look at the photos we took now I can see how much it meant to each of us to be there together.  Life is so short and the opportunity to just sit and relax and enjoy each other’s company is so rare…  I’m glad I stepped outside my comfort zone and went to Jamaica.

No problem, mon!

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