What Not To Do In Ocho Rios

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 When I couldn’t find any travel magazines or sites that were interested in submissions of what “not to do” tips, I decided to post here on my blog instead. Enjoy!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Mark Twain wrote this quote, which has been a favorite of mine from the first moment I came across it years ago. Not having much adventure in our lives as of late, my boyfriend and I recently decided to cash in on my ten years of unused travel benefits (In my “normal life” I am a Cruise Planner for a major cruise line). We decided the best plan of action was to spend a week beach hopping and sleeping in the sun, by way of an Eastern Caribbean cruise. When one thinks of adventure on the high seas, one usually doesn’t think about a modern day cruise. However, the first day into the trip we were awoken by the Captain’s announcement:

“Due to hurricane warnings in the area, we are being diverted to the Western Caribbean instead”.  Our first port of call was to be Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Neither my boyfriend, no I had ever ventured there and the only thing we knew Jamaica to be was, the land of Bob Marley, Blue Mountain Coffee and the magical place where Stella Got Her Groove Back.  To say the least, we were excited and intrigued. Failing to bother even glancing over the offered shore excursion list, we were also completely unprepared. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I implore you to do a little research – or better yet, just take an excursion.

If you are also rebellious as we were, and prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, here is how your day might go.

We walked down the gang plank, grinned tiredly for the mandatory cheesy souvenir photo and stumbled into the blinding sunshine. While we took stock of the port, I immediately commenced to a ritualistic mopping of my face with a linen napkin I had pilfered from the dining room at breakfast. The adjacent township and shops looked clean and inviting, and we were excited to start our day. We could hardly wait to go exploring. At the end of the pier there were two exit points. The option of the left was for the lucky (read: intelligent) people who had done their homework the night before, picking out the cruise line offered excursions. In the muggy heat, the sight of the big, air-conditioned motor-coaches was jealousy inducing – but I was still excited for what our day had to offer. The option to the right was for the rest: crew, people who had been to Jamaica umpteen times and the independent rebel types (my boy friend and I claim to fall under that category). It should have appeared as red flag to us when we seemed to be the only couple using the exit to the right.

Once we exited the port area, we were immediately  and insistently bombarded by waiting taxi drivers. Being travelers who generally explore on foot or by public transportation, we didn’t have much experience with this. At first we were easily hooked by their friendly calling,

“Hey, can I ask you a quick question?” The niceties rapidly became an aggressive sales pitch. Each pitch was more demanding and competitive – assuring us they would be cheaper than any other driver in town, and to not bother looking for any other driver. When we tried to suggest we might come back later if we needed a taxi, they demanded we promise not to use any other driver. Not one of the drivers we encountered would take no for an answer, and the one-sided negotiation only ended when we would physically retreat from them. Understandably, taxi drivers in Jamaica are mainly independent contractors trying to eek out a living, and the tourist dollar must be attractive. However, within the space of ten minutes and perhaps five blocks we were stopped by at least fifteen drivers.  The harassment was so bad, and what with our constant retreating – getting an idea of what the town or surrounding scenery looked like was nearly impossible. After about twenty minutes, we were finally able to get beyond the reach of the taxi drivers, and could finally take in Ocho Rios.

The town it’s self was a bit on the broken down side, but is also flanked by azure coast lines and verdant green hills. We started to pass by school yards, jerk chicken restaurants, shops and interesting craft markets. The morning was still early, and the town was only just beginning to wake up.  As the shops began to open, proprietors called over, inciting us to view and buy their wares. Not being opposed to supporting the local business, we decided we wanted to get to know the town a little, and have a some beach time before lunch and shopping.

During our walk, we met a friendly local, who by way of welcome – offered me a flower for my hair. For the purpose of our story, we’ll call him Mike. Mike was tall and lanky, dressed head to toe in red and black Nike Gear. He seemed to be in his early 30’s, had an inviting smile and infectious accent. As he happened to be walking the same direction as us, engaged us in easy conversation, commenting on the weather and pointing out the sights. We passed by “Music Alley” where live reggae musicians play every night, and showed us how every town center has a big clock tower in the middle to help you orient yourselves. After the bitter experience of the taxi driver debacle, Mike was like a fresh breath of tropical Jamaican air. He was helpful and made us laugh when he dubbed us as “Boss-Lady” and “Boss-Man”. His open friendliness drew us in, and we opened up to him about where we were from and our vacation plans. When we confided that we were seeking a nice piece of beach to relax on, Mike assured us he knew just the place; and from then on appointed himself as our personal tour guide.

Mike led the way down the street to the Silver Sea’s Hotel* . The building was a beautiful old colonial style relic, and rumor has it to be the first resort hotels to be built on the North Shore. The history buff in me was absolutely swooning, but truth be told, I was beginning to feel a bit nervous. The hotel lobby was monastery quiet, and the few hotel staff members largely ignored us. I didn’t see (or hear) any guests and it didn’t make me feel any more comfortable when our friendly tour guide became possessive shooing off another local who attempted to engage us in conversation. Instead he practically dragged me over to some giant coral, which had been found by snorkelers in their bay, and demanded I take photos of them.

Despite all of this, we decided to follow Mike to the hotel’s private beach. The beach area was a bit worse for the wear, graveled and strew with a few pieces of weather beaten plastic furniture. No real sand was to be had, but a stone breakaway and staircase opened up to the cool, blue ocean. In the heat of the day the water looked very inviting. Our guide went off to fetch some snorkel gear (complimentary use on the house), and my boyfriend and I wandered over to the stone breakaway. We had begun to realize we had made ourselves a bit vulnerable and were unsure about what to do. Mike brought back one set of snorkel gear, and as my other half drew me aside to suit up, he admitted he didn’t feel comfortable leaving me behind. I didn’t like it either, but didn’t want to leave our money, and I.D.’S alone on the beach. I promised I would sit on the breakaway wall, and not move from that spot until he came back. We swore that we would both keep sight of one another at all times. While my boyfriend went swimming, I chanced a glance over my shoulder to Mike, who was sitting at the beat up picnic table, sharing a joint with the local he had previously chased away.

“Hey Boss-Lady, the Boss-Man, he swims like a fish!” From my perch, I watched wistfully as one of the cruise line sponsored snorkeling excursions pulled in to the bay. I had never wished that I had opted to be part of a crowd more, than that moment.  When “Boss-Man” had his fill of snorkeling, Mike hurried the gear back up to the hotel. In the mean time, he had sent one of his friends down to talk to us. This guy, John, was big and jolly. He had a tee-shirt sporting his love for Jamaica, and wore a big silver diver’s watch. It wasn’t long before he launched into a monologue of his life story. He told us all about how he was from Texas, and was part of some lucrative, but borderline shady business dealings. John made sure to sing Mike’s praises, and let us know how much of a great and trustworthy guy he was. Incase we should decide to stay just beyond the one day (or when we come back for a longer visit), he let us know all the great places to go clubbing, and how we should stick with Mike. We listened politely, but guardedly.  Though friendly, this time we remained reserved. He was not at did not have the personality of anyone I’ve known from Texas (I have extensive family in Abilene), nor did his accent come close to matching. His fantastic stories didn’t quite add up, but we went along with what he said, anyhow. After a while Mike came back, and him and John decided we should all go on an adventure to Jamaica Blue Hole together.  At this point, as beautiful as it sounded, we did not want to venture off to an unknown location with strangers. Mike and John didn’t press the point, but you could tell they weren’t quite happy about our decision. They retreated back to the picnic table to chat together.

As the afternoon wore on, we did finally see some bonafide guests of the hotel who ventured down to the water, or to go and sun them selves by the hotel pool. This gave us a comforting feeling and we began enjoy ourselves. Off and on we were introduced to more of our tour guide’s buddies. Joints and jokes were passed around. We declined the latter, but happily chatted about local fare and music. Someone gave us some complimentary CD’s by a local reggae artist. After a while we ventured up to the hotel bar. It was beautifully situated, red tiled and sprawling. You could imagine the movie stars of the 1940’s milling around fabulously, soaking up the sun. At the bar, we met the hotel Proprietress (originally form Canada), and she explained some of her efforts to bring the hotel back to it’s glory days. She had originally come to the Silver Sea’s as a guest, and had fallen in love with the place. Deciding not to go home, she had gotten a job there, and worked her way up to management. Now she was implementing on upgrades, and putting on musical benefits to help local schools. Her actions would also give her much needed exposure to help bring the hotel back to it’s legendary status. While chatting around the bar, we bought Mike and ourselves a couple of Red Stripes; and when the join was offered around this time – we didn’t decline. I mean, after all we were in Jamaica. Worried about my tolerance level, mixed with the alcohol and sun, I took only one turn in the circle. Also, I wanted to make sure that one of us was on our feet for the remainder of the afternoon.

While chatting with Mike and the hotelier, we were asked if there was any specific souvenirs we were looking to take home? Finally feeling some level of confidence, we mentioned we were interested in Jamaican spices and Blue Mountain coffee. The locals had a quick chat and it was agreed that we needed to go to the farmer’s market across the street. After giving us her business card, and a quick tour of the hotel, the proprietress sent us off once again with our tour guide. When we stood in front of the “farmer’s market” all the anxieties that has previously vanished, flared up again – and warning bells were clanging in my head. Before we could really take anything in we were marched quickly through what my other half could only describe later as resembling a Brazilian Favela. This so called market was a falling down mass of scrap wood and tattered tarps, rife with litter and an air of foreboding. It was obvious the sellers both lived and worked here, and that this was a place only locals were welcome or dared venture. There were no smiling faces and the atmosphere reeked of danger and poverty. Mike stopped us briefly at one stall, manned by a sleepy looking old woman. Our guide barked at her in thick Patios, and as she stood there dazed, he shoved small sacks of spices into our hands. When we inquired about payment, he told us that this lady was his Grandmother, and he’d taken care of it. The woman looked on forlornly as we were marched off.

As we were ushered  through the maze, Mike kept pointing out various stalls where he thought I should purchase shoes, shirts and other sundries. I nodded politely but declined, uncomfortable from the glaring stall owners, only wanting to leave. Our guide, knowing we hadn’t eaten anything since we joined company with him, pointed out “local restaurants” bordering the market. These amounted to dirty cook pots perched over fires, with live chickens strolling among piles of wilted vegetables. I’d as soon eat the raw spices he had just given us. After our hurried market tour, he offered to take us to an adjacent bar for a drink. Being a bit overwhelmed, we accepted, then immediately regretted it. The bar was a tiny, converted garden shed made of painted pressboard. There was one square window, un-paned, where the afternoon light weakly trickled in. The din was cut only by a few slot machines that flanked the walls. Behind a tiny 3 cornered bar worked a scowling young woman, who wanted nothing to do with us. There were a few battered bar stools gathered around, and we followed Mike’s lead, perching on one. The noise that had been coming from the bar  stopped when we walked in, and there were a dozen or so pairs of eyes on us. Money and low voices were exchanged by the barmaid, a few other locals and Mike. His eyes were beginning to look a bit bloodshot, and I wasn’t so excited when he announced a special, traditional drink was to be made for us. The drink was made with rum, milk and Campari. The rum came from behind the bar, but the milk and Campari were brought in by one of Mike’s many friends. Feeling wary and out-numbered, we insisted that Mike share the drink with us. When he negotiated the price, we handed over the money, promptly. The feeling in the bar was oppressive, and we wanted to be anywhere but there.

When the drink was finished, we decided it was time to make our way back to the ship, and we told Mike we were ready to go. When he tried to lead us back to the Favela instead, indicating we hadn’t purchased our coffee yet – Boss-Man decided to shut it down. He politely, yet firmly told our guide, that we were leaving now, and that we had to get back to the ship. Immediately the friendly demeanor we’d seen all day changed to hostility. Mike demanded $70.00 from each of us, for his day’s worth of service. In the course of the afternoon we’d bought him several beers at the hotel, not to mention the drinks at the bar, and we had never asked for his services to bethink with. We didn’t have any qualms about tipping him for, but we had watched him receive money from people at the hotel and the bar; and weren’t in the mood to be swindled. My boyfriend gave him about half of what he asked for, in combined American and Jamaican. Very quickly, I was then dragged to the main street, where I was basically marched back to the port. At that point, after the excitement of the day, the sun, the drinks and the joint, I wasn’t feeling very well. My focus and goal was all in forward motion, propelling me to our comfortable stateroom. Talking wasn’t necessary nor wanted at that point.

Later that night, when we having a quiet dinner on the ship, we scarcely had words to describe the afternoon. My boyfriend told me that Mike had followed us angrily for most of the way back to the ship, turning away only when the pier was in sight. We marveled at the situations we had put our self in, and were thankful for what must have been divine protection.

All things said and done it was a supreme experience, and a story worth telling. In some aspects, we can laugh about it now as nothing really happened to us, but the possibilities are out there. The moral of the story is, be open to adventure, but please if you go to Ocho Rios, partake in a reputable tour, and don’t go just fly by the seat of your pants.

*Author’s note: The Silver Sea’s Hotel really is quite a beautiful place that boasts a genuinely nice staff.

You can visit their website here: http://www.silverseashotel.com

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