Our plane landed in Montego Bay on Thursday October 20th, just as the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in a few days. Hurricane Wilma formed off the west coast of Jamaica earlier that week, then slowly moved across the Caribbean to wreak havoc on the tourist destinations on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Fortunately for Jamaica, they were only touched by the outer edges of the storm. Most of the damage came from the huge waves created by the giant category 4 storm that continued to break along the coast days after the skies had cleared. We were there for a friend’s wedding, and everyone was relieved that the weather was improving; what we didn’t count on was the impact the storm would continue to have on the island for the next few days.
As the intensity of the storm increased, so did the size of the waves crashing into the rocky Negril coastline, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Thursday night guests staying in some of the resorts along the western edge of Negril were awakened by waves crashing directly into their bungalows. Windows were blown out, and some roofs collapsed under the ocean's assault. By Friday, the waves were nearly 20 feet, and many restaurants and cliff-top hotels had been forced to close. Popular spots to watch cliff-diving, like Rick’s, had been turned into sea-spray soaked venues where tourists gazed at monster waves breaking where the waters are normally clear and calm. Beachside bars like Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and local favorite Alfred’s were flooded by waves reaching far into the establishments. The damage along the pristine white sand beach was typically fallen palm trees, collapsed decks, and some erosion.
All things considered, the damage we saw was minimal. Unlike where I live in Costa Rica, the Jamaicans were eager to repair and clean up. There were two primary things that caught my eye. The first was a group of locals repairing potholes on a back road for driver donations. In Costa Rica, the roads have been in a continual state of disrepair for years, and nobody except the municipality will lift a finger, even though the entire beach town where I live depends on tourism. The other surprise was the hotel workers cleaning the beach. All along Negril’s beaches, workers were raking and burying huge piles of seaweed, and by Sunday, things looked the way the tourism brochures depicted. This is something you will never see in Costa Rica, even at the most expensive resort. I was very impressed.
The surf had calmed down by Sunday morning, and we decided to take a taxi tour of the Negril before we departed. I was surprised by the limited amount of damage overall. Most of the real damage I noticed was from Hurricane Ivan the year before. Even without the hurricane-force winds, Jamaica had still experienced torrential rains for a number of days prior to our arrival, and having lived in Central America for the last four years, I was expecting to see washed out roads, at least. What we found was a country busily cleaning up and moving on. Count on Jamaica to be ready for your next trip.
Once you leave the airport in Montego Bay, you see numerous pictures of Bob Marley, from T-shirts to murals and every kind of souvenir imaginable. He is undoubtedly Jamaica’s favorite son and one of the most heavily marketed aspects of the island nation due to his worldwide popularity. But when you get past the tour of his birthplace in a tiny town called Nine Mile and the occasional song you hear in some random tourist hangout, there is little left of his legacy to be seen. Bob Marley passed away nearly 25 years ago, but his worldwide popularity and legacy live on. His life and music brought Jamaica and reggae music into the limelight in the 1970s, and to this day, he is undoubtedly the most famous Jamaican. The island is a mecca for would-be Rastas and Marley fans alike, even though the culture made famous by him seems to be slowly fading from Jamaican society. It seems that the younger Jamaicans of today are more influenced by hip-hop and rap than reggae and the Rastafarian life. Jamaica may truly be losing one of the very things that make it so unique.
The Darker Side
Since my income is tourist-dependent, I have to restrict my pleasure travel to the off-season. This has some benefits, including discount prices and hotel availability and no crowds. One of my favorite benefits of low-season travel is getting to see a place (beach or town) in more of its ‘natural’ state, without the throngs of other tourists. I’ve never really considered myself your typical tourist. But beware: when you travel this way, you may see more than you want. Wherever you find tourists with money, you will invariably find people willing to supply travelers with whatever vice they desire. I was shocked to find the number of prostitutes, drug dealers, and street hustlers on the streets and in the clubs of Negril.
My research on Jamaica did not prepare me for what we found. Negril has a solid reputation as a tropical island beach paradise, with noted resorts like Hedonism 2 and Riu, but few places I read mentioned the dangerous conditions on the streets after dark. I would recommend that anyone traveling to this beautiful beach town use taxis at night and only go to the bars and clubs in groups. I’ve been told that in high season, this side of Jamaica would not be as apparent.