Jamaica, one of the most alluring of the Caribbean islands, lives as a tourist brochure cliché of tropical scenery and shimmering beaches. Its sunsets provide the backdrop for many a romantic picture and the reported laid back nature of the locals with a ready smile and quick wit portray a happy-go-lucky island.
Jamaica is everyone's island in the sun. Unlike its neighbours who cater mainly for the rich and famous Jamaica really is somewhere for everyone. From the private villa with its guarded private beach to the non-stop party resorts where the beach is a party and the water rum, Jamaica really caters for all-comers. Go to be pampered at a spa or be adventurous in the mountains, find a B&B by the road or an all-inclusive, the choice is there for the taking.
The contrasts are not only to be found in the types of traveller to visit or the type of accommodation selected but in the country itself. Rainforest-like mountains give way to desert like plains which melt into lush mangrove swamps and finally crystal sea. Viewed from the air whilst making an internal flight in a small aircraft the contrast was all too evident, a kaleidoscope of colour stretching as far as the eye could see, greens, blues, yellows and reds as you have never seen before.
The social contrast is even more apparent. Arriving in Montego Bay (the arrival airport for most foreign holidaymakers) your first impression is of a developing country. The airport is basic although there is a clear US influence with American style-security and advertising. It is a rather strange experience to be told to "wait behind the yellow line" at passport control whilst a local group in traditional dress welcome you to Jamaica with traditional upbeat songs. Leaving the airport takes you through a commercial centre, rather more US/European in style before giving way to the real-Jamaica. As you drive (or should I say careen) along the potholed roads at an alarming speed you pass grand, colonial style houses neighboured by wooden shacks. As you pass through the villages you realise that the brochured image of Jamaica is about as far from reality as is possible. The towns are densely populated and poverty is everywhere. I found it really hard to believe that this was the same country as that which I had selected to spend my honeymoon in, robed in the lap of luxury in an all-inclusive resort. As we neared our resort in Ochos Rios the shanty towns made way to open roads lined with huts, some clearly lived in, others the base for a meagre trade in refreshments or wood carvings. As we entered the resort Jamaica became an island not of contrast but of contradiction. All that separated our home for the next week from the real country was a six-foot wall. No barbed wire or armed security (although I'm sure that they were present), just a man in a booth on the gate. To the seaward side of this wall lay an estate of luxury, mown grass and well-stocked tropical gardens, to the other side lay unusable rough land fringed with shacks housing far more people than seemed humanly possible plying a trade that no-one was buying. Think too hard and it hurts.
Jamaica is positively bathing in history and it is from these complex roots that much of the culture has evolved. It is the land of the Rastafarian, the colonial plantation, the slave and the pirate. Jamaica's motto - "out of many, one people" encapsulates the country. Talking to locals there are so many stories to be told and so many lives to experience that I could not hope to do the people justice in this review - there is simply not enough space. Most Jamaicans are of African or African/European descent and almost without exception they are a friendly, outgoing nation who are seemingly unaware of the many social and economic problems evident to the traveller. Life is laid back ("soon come") and care free ("no problem mon") - life is simply alright ("Irie").