Jamaica is one of those places which remained under foreign rule much longer than anyone probably realized; it didn’t gain its independence until 1962, before which it spent a little over three centuries as a British colony. Though its previous European tenants, the Spanish, had gifted it the uninspired name of Santiago (St. James), the British managed a hairsbreadth more historical sensitivity by opting for Jamaica, an Anglicization of the Arawak Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water”.
Though slightly better-known than other well-touristed locales of the West Indies, Jamaica’s status in popular knowledge is limited to its notoriety in the transatlantic slave trade, in which slaves from West Africa were rather unhappily exported to the Caribbean, where they were sold to sugar plantations, the sugar of which was used to make rum and other goods, which were then shipped to Europe and New England, where the proceeds from their sale allowed for the further purchase of involuntary labor from Africa. Jamaica’s other crowning achievement is the cultural institution of Bob Marley, whose musical contributions were immense, but whose legacy in the form of pot popularization and Rastafari I could do without.
Though notorious for its production of marijuana (“Jamaica Red” is one popular variety) and duly famous for its Blue Mountain coffee, tourism is Jamaica’s most lucrative and important industry, comprising about half of its national income. This past week, my new wife and I, by way of a honeymoon, became one of approximately 1.3 million people to visit Jamaica every year.
On your mark, get set, obscure!
If becoming .0001% of the country’s annual influx of pasty gawkers makes one feel less than unique, the feeling pales in comparison to visiting a couples resort—Sandals Grande Ocho Rios, in our case—where you go from being the center of attention at your wedding to being one of hundreds of couples, most of them newlyweds, and many of them sharing your same wedding date. Thankfully, these kinds of resorts are not generally populated by the same taut, coiffed, half-naked demigods that populate Sandals’ brochures, so one did not need to add insecurity to the list of emergent problems. No, we were alongside a lot of Middle America’s workaday schmucks, which was comforting, considering my own swimsuited body resembles a phasmid in floral shorts.
All things being equal, I would have preferred someplace cold and rainy: Seattle, maybe, or England. Then again, my idea of a good time consists of drinking coffee, reading books, and programming, all of which I can do perfectly well from my home office, so nobody much cares about my opinion of honeymoon destinations. My wife, who is beautiful and wise and one of those strange people who enjoys ultraviolet radiation, promised me a shady spot and all the reading I cared to do; I am not a brilliant man, but I am smart enough to recognize arguments I can’t win. I booked the trip.
Allison and I got married on Saturday, got about 4 hours of sleep, and arose at eight in order to send off our out-of-town family. Sunday night provided perhaps another two and a half hours: a 3:30am limo pickup necessitated waking at an hour whose very existence was heretofore apocryphal in my mind. I don’t sleep in any meaningful way in cars or planes, so one may begin to understand my mental state by the time we arrived at our resort at approximately 5pm; a photograph from our arrival shows my eyes looking darker than a drag queen’s. The two-hour bus ride from the airport to our resort was peopled with a lot of similarly-exhausted and perspiring newlyweds, but many of the males especially had already launched into bravado about the duration and volume of that evening’s expected libations. Though Allison and I immediately went to one of the resort’s many restaurants for dinner—Tex Mex food, and very forgettable—I don’t think I exaggerate when I see we were in bed and asleep by 9.
Jamaica… no problem
Sandals Resorts International operates no fewer than fifteen couples-only resorts in the Caribbean, eight of which are in Jamaica, though it also serves as an umbrella corporation for other family-oriented resorts. A Jamaican company founded in 1981, it until very recently garnered worldwide opprobrium for its ban of homosexual couples, a policy which wasn’t rescinded until 2004. It purports to be a company known for two things: luxury and service. It’s the milieu of Jamaican resorts: the customer is king, and Jamaica especially cultivates the image with catchphrases like “Jamaica no problem!”
There’s a strange line drawn in the sand at Sandals. Most of the male employees were cast from that mould; the young man responsible for our orientation the next day (which found me significantly brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed) even joked that if anybody told us “No” on the resort, we should sue them. While the entertainment crew, groundskeepers, and bartenders seemed to take this to heart (except for the bartender who told me they didn’t serve mojitos for some strange reason), it seems as though the deskworkers, mostly female, weren’t having nearly as much fun, and generally acted as though good service were the last thing on their minds.
Allison and I were originally supposed to stay at Sandals Negril; two days before the wedding, our travel agent informed us that they closed the resort, and were instead moving us to an “upgraded” room at the Grande Ocho Rios; in addition, she said, we should speak with the front desk when we arrived, as there was hint of additional compensation or freebies for our troubles. I approached the desk when we arrived, explaining the situation and inquiring as suggested. Was there anything else we would get? No.
Allison had bought a spa treatment in Negril. The Sandals website offered a free $250 spa credit if you went to Ocho Rios. Could we get it? No.
We bought internet access at a pay-to-play kiosk and needed a pen to write down our access code. Could we borrow one for just a minute. I only have one and I’m using it.
We didn’t receive a schedule of events one day. Did the front desk have any copies? No. Is there any other place in the resort that might have one? No.1
Such was the nature of these resorts. Officially, they are all-inclusive: the meals are free, and in theory one could eat as frequently as desired. The booze is gratis, even though some of it is of the terrible, bottom-shelf variety (blended Scotch? really?). But there’s still an internal culture of upselling no different from the trinket-sellers that plague every destination outside the resort. In our room, we had access to a liquor cabinet and a fridge full of wine, beer and soda, and it was ours for the taking. A bag of cashews from the tray on the table, however, would set us back $9. Signs around the resort prompted couples to schedule a “complementary” photo shoot; I knew, of course, that acquiring the resulting photos would be exorbitant, but Allison underestimated the avarice and suggested we do it anyway. Afterwards, the staff didn’t bother asking if we were interested in purchasing any photos; they simply asked to cull any photos we didn’t like from the resulting set, and then read us a total equivalent to $16 per photograph. I politely demurred to purchase the entire set, which, it must be said, were rather uninspired anyway.
Minimizing Jamaica for non-Jamaicans
This isn’t to say that I consider an “all-inclusive” resort to be a mistake. Far from it, despite the cost. The general rule of thumb about Jamaica is that it’s lovely so long as you don’t leave your resort—or, if you do, only in the company of resort guides, on resort transportation. The lone tourist in Jamaica’s notorious slums will quickly find himself in dire straits.
I can’t square the disparate images of Jamaica I saw when I was there. On the one hand, it was littered with billboards for cell phone networks; I routinely saw commercials for On-Demand cable service; I saw, among the many run-down Hondas and Toyotas, and a number of German luxury cars. On the other hand, we drove by shanty town after shanty town, whole families in rags on the roadside with tables for salable fruit, waiting for customers that never appeared to come. There is grinding poverty in Jamaica, perhaps made worse to my ridiculous Midwestern sensibilities by how hot and squalid everything seemed in the thick, wet Jamaican heat.
To both pleasant and disturbing ends, resorts give you a smiling, sanitized Jamaica, where nothing is ever a problem (unless you want something from the front desk) and you can have a Red Stripe beer while you wait. Whereas one might expect a lot of reggae and steel drum, there was very little to be heard within the confines of Sandals’ Grande Ocho Rios; in its place was a constant loop of easy listening, including Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”2 and one or more songs by Kenny G, though it’s hard to tell specifically since everything he makes is indistinguishably terrible. It seemed engineered for a dorky white clientele by somebody who doesn’t actually know what dorky white Americans listen to.
Food, too, seemed to include very little Jamaican influence: aside from the proliferation of pumpkin, and the occasional availability of jerk chicken and pork, the apparent aim of the cuisine was to replicate, poorly, the sorts of things we might eat in the states: a mediocre Italian restaurant with an average 90-minute wait; a Tex-Mex restaurant whose location on a pier included so little light it was impossible to see your food when eating it; an Asian-fusion place that was, it must be said, quite good; an “international” eatery which served up bacon, eggs, and french toast every morning. Even the Caribbean restaurant went light on the spice, though admittedly my steak and cassava was still quite good.
So it was that while the gift shops peddled almost exclusively Jamaican-themed trinkets and overpriced t-shirts, the resort experience was designed to minimize the tourist’s interaction with Jamaican culture, save for its most superficial, smiling bits. I suppose I could say that I never really visited Jamaica at all, but an elaborate Potemkin Jamaica, trussed up for my honeymoon. I still have no idea what Jamaica is really like, other than the pearly-white resort experience, the dire warnings from other Americans about going off-resort, and a few excursions to well-traveled tourist traps. I realize that my purpose in visiting Jamaica was not to, well, go native, but there’s still something about the experience that bothers me in that same way that “complementary photo shoot” involves more and costs more than the signs would ever admit.