Montego Bay, Jamaica
By Dan Rankin
It seems like a fitting time for a travel story on a recent trip to a tropical paradise, so that, after reading this synopsis and looking on the accompanying photos, perhaps our readers might experience some secondhand warmth.
Though Montego Bay in the west is one of Jamaica’s more populous cities, with a population around 110,000, it is much smaller than the capital of Kingston (pop. 937,000) in the southeast. Despite that, Mo Bay, as its known by the locals, is home to the nation’s busiest airport, Sangster International. We tourists see to that.
The warmth I began to feel upon our descent into Jamaica was worth forking over all of that dough up front. We were ushered onto the tarmac, into a bus, and off to the luxurious all-inclusive Hotel Riu Montego Bay. It was a short drive, which was a plus for us weary travellers, but wound up being sort of a doubleedged sword. By the pool or on the shore of the Caribbean Sea, just chilling out, we would occasionally be jostled out of our relaxing haze by the roar of a commercial airliner passing overhead, taking home some of the tourists who had just spent a little time at some of the area’s many resorts.
The resort life offers a huge range of options for guests: Get burnt to a crisp on the beach, or dump quarters into the sports bar slot machines, far from the sun; return in better shape than you’ve been in months thanks to the resort’s gym and spa, or load up at the buffet(s) and work on your tan; see the country thanks to some of the many tour companies operating out your resort’s lobby, or drink your face off at the poolside bar by 1:00 pm. Or, spend a day or two doing all of the above. We were there to attend a lovely wedding, in the sand under palm trees, but apart from that, our calendars were open.
From our location in Montego Bay, we could take relatively short jaunts to the island’s other tourist hotspots of Negril, where you can check out the famous sunset and cliff divers at Rick’s Cafe, and Ocho Rios, home to Dolphin Cove and the Dunn’s River Falls. When you’re driving in Jamaica, our guides told us, because of a holdover from their British colonial past, ‘the left side is the right side,’ and the right side, they said, ‘is suicide.’ But even on the left side, things can get a little dicey, as I don’t think they had full-sized buses in mind when they carved out some of Jamaica’s mountain roads.
For most, life in the small beach towns we passed on the way to our destinations was, despite the common factors of the sun and lush vegetation, nothing like life on a resort. Last year, according to the national newspaper The Gleaner, the country’s minimum wage was equal to $1.21 US per hour – just $9.68 US per day. That’s roughly half as much as in other Caribbean nations such as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, and it goes a long way to explaining why some of the souvenir salesmen at the tourist traps can sometimes come across as a little persistent, and why tipping the resort staff is so appreciated.
On a fruit plantation, we saw how diverse and distinct Jamaica’s agriculture industry is, growing everything from ackee, the national fruit, to papaya, coffee beans, breadfruit, coconut, pineapple, bananas, sugar cane and more.
While some of the businesses we passed in Jamaica felt very familiar, like the Scotiabank branches (and the KFC, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and Burger King locations too), there were plenty of other aspects, such as the Rastafarian art and the delicious jerk chicken shacks every 50 feet, that let you know you were definitely in Jamaica. Another thing that stood out was how Jamaican life seems to straddle fun-loving hedonism (what with the bumping ‘dancehall’ music and dance culture, and more than a few adults-only resorts) with strict conservatism (we were told they have more churches per capita of any country, and harsh laws still exist banning homosexual acts).
On the resort, we met and made friends with people from all over the world (particularly the USA, UK, Sweden and Germany). But, as the week wore on, new faces appeared and old ones disappeared, flown away by the planes roaring out of Jamaica overhead. Though it seemed too soon, it wasn’t long before we joined them, on our way back to Canada, where it would be at least four months before we could break out those summer clothes once more.