An azure sea shimmers on either side of the runway below. When our flight touches the tarmac at Kingston’s Norman Manley Airport, I feel like we are inside a submarine, surging through the clear, blue water at high speed. I’m here with other cricket journalists to cover India’s 2006 tour of the West Indies.
Before long, I catch a glimpse of life and culture on the island. It’s everything one expects: musical, colourful and vibrant. You can hear Bob Marley and other reggae beats everywhere, and the energetic conversations in Patois (Jamaican Creole) sound just as rhythmic.
Stunning beaches dot the Jamaican coastline and, naturally, it’s where most tourists throng. Hellshire beach is lovely, but it’s the magnificent spots of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril that leave a lasting impression on me. Along a sandbar at Negril is Seven Mile Beach, with golden, sparkling sand, one of the most alluring spots you’re ever likely to visit.
Jamaica is home to the Blue Mountains, the mountain range behind one of the world’s most famous and sought-after coffees. Visiting a coffee estate in the mountains is something of a religious experience. Some of Jamaica’s coffee estates house imposing old-style mansions with ornate interiors. I was particularly surprised by the Japanese-influenced, coffee-drinking ceremony, on the lines of the ritual usually practised with tea.
We also caught a glimpse of the lives of the plantation workers and their creatively composed reggae numbers, sung while tending to the beans. Jamaican coffee is not as bitter as its Indian counterpart and possesses a deep, rich flavour. All it takes is one hot cuppa to wipe out any lingering morning lethargy, even after a very late night in the company of that other famous Jamaican beverage, rum.
By night, Jamaica reveals a distinct soul. Whether you’re in a ramshackle bar that’s crackling with discussions, or in a glitzy nightclub swinging to ska music—a genre that combines calypso with American jazz and blues—it’s impossible to miss the essence of the culture.
No matter where you are, one of four subjects will creep into any conversation you have: rum, coffee, Bob Marley or cricket. If Blue Mountain coffee is the flavour of the day, Appleton, the sweet local rum, is imbibed in copious quantities long into the wee hours of the morning.
It’s easy to start a conversation here, and cricket is the best topic to break the ice with. West Indians appreciate the nuances of the game at a deep level, with a blend of historical knowledge and cricketing technique.
I spend an unforgettable evening with Paget DeFraites, editor of a leading local newspaper, discussing cricket and the influence of radio on the West Indies. He speaks with joy of one of his early memories: “I remember Viv Richards’ debut tour to India and followed it on my transistor. After he’d failed in his first Test, he went to Delhi and I still remember Berry Sarbadhikary, the commentator, screaming, ‘He’s hit it 20, no 30, no 40 metres over the stands. It was so satisfying to hear another countryman raving about one of your own.”
East Indians, a term used to describe Caribbean people with subcontinental roots, take special interest in the fortunes of the Indian cricket team. They are a tiny minority in Jamaica, with a distinctly different culture. They’re well-versed with the happenings in Bollywood, know several Indian film tracks by heart (without understanding a word), celebrate Indian festivals such as Holi and savour dishes like dal pouri and pappadams.
While in Jamaica, it’s impossible to miss the influence of Bob Marley and a couple of us decide to brave Trenchtown, one of the more dangerous areas in the country, to pay our respects to Jamaica’s most famous son. Once you enter Trenchtown, it’s Marley all over. Walls everywhere are covered with murals of him and his band, The Wailers. Down Hope Road, a lane opposite Boys’ Town Cricket and Football Club, stands Jamaica’s most famous house—the place where Marley lived. There’s a Jamaican flag outside, music blares from a speaker, and a couple of men with Rastafarian braids, smoke pot.
We’re not allowed inside, but take a tour of the backyard instead. There we find Marley’s dilapidated old van, a Marley statue, a medium-sized structure erected from plaster of Paris, with a guitar in his hand and a football at his feet. On the plinth are images of Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor who is venerated by followers of the Rastafarian movement, and Marcus Garvey, advocate of the back-to-Africa movement.
Marley’s home has now been declared a national heritage site and museum, where a one-hour tour takes you through rooms that include Marley’s private studio and the spot where he was shot at in a failed assassination attempt in 1976.
Trenchtown is illustrative of many parts of present-day Jamaica, where crime rates are rising. It’s difficult to get here; even local taxis prefer to avoid the area where “they shoot humans like birds”. The desperation is palpable. Shabbily dressed youngsters demand money, goons threaten or try to coerce. High rates of unemployment have resulted in a generation that has resorted to crime. It’s never safe to wander here at night. It’s ironical though that a country of such spectacular natural beauty has areas that evoke such insecurity. Not unlike India, for every aspect that draws you towards Jamaica, there are others that could turn you away. It’s a complex paradox, but as you’ll hear the Jamaicans say philosophically, “That’s the beauty, maan.”
Flights:Fly to London and then direct to Kingston on British Airways; it’s often cheaper to fly to New York or Miami, and then to Kingston on a US carrier.
Visas:The Embassy of Jamaica, from where visas can be obtained, is in Delhi.
Hotels: Book online or with a travel agent.
Where to eat and drink:The beaches are lined with bars and restaurants. In the Blue Mountains, Strawberry Hill (Tel: 1-876 944-8400) is recommended. Norma Shirley is one of Kingston’s most famous chefs. Eat at one of her two restaurants, Norma’s on the Terrace (Tel: 1-876 968-5488) or Norma’s (Tel:1-876 957-4041), located in the Sea Splash Resort, Negril. Two places with a view: Rockhouse, Negril (Tel:1-876-957-4373), and Mille Fleurs, Port Antonio (Tel: 1-876-993-7267). For night-life, try numerous reggae nightspots, where the best local artists perform live; otherwise, there’s lots of entertainment at the big resorts.
Where to stay:Plenty of all-inclusive resorts for families. Try Beaches Boscobel Resort & Golf Club, 16km from Ocho Rios (Tel:1-876- 975-7777;www.beaches.com), FDR Pebbles, Montego Bay (Tel: 1-876-617-2500; www.fdrholidays.com), or the Beaches Negril (Tel: 1-876- 957-9270). Rio Vista Resort Villas (Tel: 1-876-993-5444;www.riovistajamaica), too, comes well-recommended. For a small retreat away from the crowds, try the Tensing Pen (Tel:1-876-957-0387;www.tensingpen.com) or The Courtleigh (Tel: 1-876-929-9000; www.courtleigh.com). Rates vary with season, specially during events such as the World Cup.
Where to go: Doctor’s Cave Beach, Montego Bay, for white sand and calm waters. Seven Mile Beach has golden sand and some nudist areas. Treasure Beach, South Coast, is perfect for seclusion, but the sea is rough. Jamaica also has great golf courses, scuba-diving facilities and river rafting.
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