I could do this. Easy. Laid Back. Island Time. Jamaica.
After all, I’m the girl who will go almost anywhere, try almost anything, eat almost anything. But I’m still not fearless. Sitting at home at my kitchen table, I was the one who had decisively stated that I was going to Jamaica to face my fear of the water.
Wind whipping through, what at the time felt to me like my effortless beach hair, but otherwise in pictures looking like my, my hair is stuck to the side of my face hair, I looked out into the infinite turquoise Caribbean. Chickens ran beneath my feet. A German Sheppard jumped into the water. Effortless and breezy, just like my hair. I could do this. Right?
There are fewer things in this life stronger than fear, even when you know it’s ridiculous to be afraid. Fear is one of the hardest things to fight within ourselves. I’d almost drowned as a teenager. Those were the flashbacks I was having while my feet gripped into the porous black rocks above Bull’s Bay; the feeling of being helpless, exhausted, and panicked.
Fighting through the hot tears and every one of my instincts, with a lot of encouraging then frustrated cries from my travel partner down below, I jumped into some of the clearest waters on earth.
This was why I had come to Jamaica, I was doing it! I was snapping pics with my little crummy underwater camera, flapping my little $12 yellow Amazon flippers, delighted about the colorful Dory fish playing around my ankles. I fought the current to not be sucked into the infinite, ginormous cracks of the rocks, otherwise known as the exaggerated abysses where humans go forever to disappear and sharks hang upside-down like vampires just waiting to suck you in. Then that tarantula thing from LOTR might pop out of the cave, except the underwater tarantula version, whatever that might look like. Oh wait, no monsters, no sharks. everything was, fine?
Although still a little scared and panicky I was having a great time for a couple of minutes.
Then I cut my hand and the magic was over. I didn’t care how many people said that there weren’t any sharks in Jamaica. After all I’m was guessing that the name Bull’s Bay didn’t come from the sight of a big majestic bull on top of the cliff. Logic told me that it was named after a a different type of bull. Hand bleeding? I’m out.
- On a Side note, there are two Bulls Bays in Jamaica. We didn’t swim in the main one. Our snorkeling happened outside of Lucea . . . just in case your thinking you might want to try too Bulls Bay Lucea
Feeling silly and a little proud about kind-of almost snorkeling, I settled for endless portions of jerk chicken with rice and peas. We drove the entire perimeter of the island beginning in Mo’ Bay, heading west to Negril, through Santa Cruz, to Kingston, up through the Blue Mountains, Ocho Rios, and ending back in Mo’ Bay. We stopped at roadside eateries featuring lawn chairs and friendly pit-masters sweating over corroded barrels that had been converted into grills. Even more beautiful than the views, these are what the people of the Caribbean do best: throw together a little stand, scratch out a little roadside sign, put some sauces on the table, and voila, some of the best food that you will ever eat out of a Styrofoam container (or any container for that matter) in your life.
It was evident that specific parts of the island were tourist hotspots. And that those spots were segregated from the lives of everyday Jamaicans. We rolled past the resorts in Negril, the Hard Rock Cafes, and Margaritaville’s with 50s-something business men and their families dancing foolishly in their island patterned button downs, smoking cigars, watching their teenagers jump around on blow up water slides. Their communities were gated. They had security guards. They were impossible for me to relate to. The jerk pit-master was more relate-able, down-to-earth, and interesting.
Since day one we had been on the hunt to chill with some Rastafarians. Google led us astray in Montego Bay when we were convinced that we would find them after balancing ourselves on the most questionable bamboo footbridge in existence. There was a village– but no Rastas anywhere to be found. We scoured the woods and they were nowhere, leading me to believe that the Rastas had gone home for the day. However I did get into a little skirmish with a lizard that puffed his throat up because he did not like me chilling in his empty Rasta village.
Jokes aside, I did find some Rastas. Actually, I didn’t find the Rastas, they found me.
After staying the night in Kingston, we ascended the deserted side of the Blue Mountains at morning. We stopped at an open-air hummingbird cafe for breakfast, the chickens clucked in their enclosure next to the kitchen. The birds, the farm life, the mountains. . . bewildered I reflected how this was my favorite spot in all of Jamaica, not so different from my other favorite parts of the world. Looking over the Blue Mountains in the cool morning air, amongst artwork, hammocks, other backpackers, and farm animals– you couldn’t get those vibes from an all inclusive.
Upon reaching the top we were ambushed at a barricaded pass. We initially tried to avoid the lanky man standing in the road. With no way to turn the car around he draped himself over the side of the car and rapped on the window. Against our better judgement, we rolled down the window to see a long scar over his eye, a minor detail that would later stick with both of us forever. This was the boss man. We had to get out of the car. Trying to ease tension, I asked to use the washroom. He led us into an empty, but rather large house. The empty room stopped me dead in my tracks. A single interrogation table and chair sat in the middle of the downstairs living room and not a single light was on. I could disappear here and no one would ever even know. I looked at the grout in the cold tile floors wondering if this was going to be my final resting place. These guys were in complete control. How was I going to play this? I tried to reign in my panicked thoughts as I sobered up in the mirror. I decided even though I was pretty sure I knew what was about to happen, that I was going to play dumb, be really nice, maybe if I was nice enough they wouldn’t hurt me.
Andrew and I exchanged whispers and looks of mistrust as we passed in the doorway. It was his turn to use the washroom whereupon he thought to divide his cash in several different places on his person, leaving just enough inside of his wallet to not look suspicious. We were guided out to a small outside room full of men. I sipped coffee straight off of the fire and sat for what felt like a while. We talked, about rice and peas of all things. They were surprised that sometimes I cooked us peas and rice at home, except that we called them red beans. I looked up at a giant lion swinging in the corner. “The Lion of Judah”, I questioned as I pointed up to appreciate the symbol covered in cobwebs. The men seemed surprised that I knew anything about it.
I took the initiative to leave the room saying that I wanted to “Grab my camera”, pretending that I had never seen anyone brew coffee before, pretending that this was the coolest experience that I had ever had. I stalled at the car hoping that Andrew would join me. While waiting I met the boss man’s kids and some of the other children from the village. They ran around chasing a soccer ball until my camera caught their attention. They each wanted their picture taken. For a moment I forgot all about the situation at hand with the boss man. We laughed as the boys struck poses to look tough. They would then crack smiles at how tough they had appeared. Their big brown eyes looked up at me and I wondered how they would ever carve out a life for themselves way up on top of these mountains. Suddenly the extortion by their father made sense. He was just trying to provide for these adorable kids. Andrew entered the scene with two men on either side of him. The boss man’s assistant took Andrew into a gentle headlock. Upon their request he emptied his walled as a “donation” to the boss man and his helpers. It was just shy of violent, but it was everything in his pockets, gone.
We left with the camera, our passports, and the car. We were irritated, but thankful that they had left us enough gas money to get where we were going and especially thankful that we were in one piece. It wasn’t exactly the peaceful meeting in the woods that I had pictured my first Rastafarian encounter to be like. The Lion of Judah is one of the most important symbols in Rastafarian beliefs. That’s how I knew that I had found them.
The Margaritaville tourists didn’t see that side of Jamaica. Neither did the cruise ship tourists who went on an excursion at a port. The crazy thing about all of it was that even though we knew exactly what was going on on that pass in the Blue Mountains, we never got scared. Haunting us with the question of, if there ever was a time to be actually scared while abroad, would we be?
And looking back at pictures, I remember also feeling comfortable during the uncomfortable time. Kicking a ball around with a couple of adorable kids? Them begging me to take their picture? Things seemed somewhat okay.
After earthquakes, tsunami warnings, thinking our hotel room was wiretapped by the KGB in Russia, trouncing through dark alleys, having our door pounded in during the middle of the night by drunken revelers in Budapest, being terrified of Trump’s new threats against Americans returning from Cuba as we reimmigrated through customs back from Cuba . . . none of those fears ever manifested. Nothing bad ever happened. We lived through being robbed. Truth be told not much abroad has been meriting fear these days.
I’ll circle back to the beginning. After 46 countries, I will go almost anywhere. I will eat just about anything. But I’m still not fearless. I wish I could be one of the over sensationalized bloggers that will tell you to conquer your fears, that it will always work out for you, that everything in the land of travel is always hunkydory. It’s not as black and white as that. Sometimes you cry at the coral reef. Sometimes you get held up by Rastafarians. Sometimes you’ll get stuck in a conversation with an ignorant sweet granny that will scold you bewilderingly asking how you go so many places, “Aren’t you scared? To which I usually reply, “No, not really”.
But it’s gray. Sometimes I am a little scared.
But I go anyways.