WEEKEND'S SEARCH for the Sun is a tale involving cows and little goats, Lord Laro, swimsuits where they shouldn't be, lavender sharks' teeth, New York Giant Phil McConkey, the Lenin Limo and the Mystery of the Missing Weather Forecasts.
It all began innocently enough at a staff meeting when my editor said, "Hey! It's the middle of winter. Everyone wants to know where to find the Sun. Why doncha take one of those quickie cheap flights to the Caribbean and tell us all about it."
I scrambled back to my desk to call Bethesda Travel and ask to be booked on the cheapest three-night trip to anywhere in the Caribbean. "Leaving now, if possible, before my editor changes his mind," I said.
"The Bahamas are all booked until March," said agency owner Tony Adelfio. "It will probably be Jamaica." F WKRULER,20.9,qjOUR SEARCH FOR THE SUN
It was Jamaica, an island I last visited 10 years ago. So one recent Friday, my wife and I left behind the snow, ice and 15-degree temperatures in Washington, drove to BWI Airport and caught Air Jamaica's Flight 40 to Montego Bay.
"Did you check the forecasts?" Barbara asked.
"All week the Kingston report has been highs near 90, lows near 70, and partly cloudy skies," I replied confidently.
"Good," Barbara said. "I just hope it doesn't rain. I can deal with anything but rain."
The first sign that all was not going to go well came when the A300 Airbus banked down through a layer of clouds to land. The sea was the familiar mixture of light greens and deeper blues. The low, thick clouds were a familiar shade of gray. On the water's surface I could see large whitecaps. I recalled a lesson from sailing that said winds of 22 knots or more are needed to form such large whitecaps. I decided to keep this to myself.
The plane landed -- on time, surprisingly -- and as it taxied to the terminal, the stewardess came on the intercom and announced: "The temperature is 78 degrees and the skies are cloudy." Then the bad news: "Jamaica has been experiencing high winds recently. Be careful when exiting the plane."
Whoa! Winds stiff enough to blow you off the stairs? I looked out the windows. Sure enough, the palm trees nearby were bent at about a 45-degree angle, their fronds twirling madly.
"At least it's not raining," Barbara said. We walked down the stairs and entered the warm, humid air of Jamaica. The winds were fierce, but we managed.
We hurried into the terminal, passing a group of schoolgirls singing "Welcome to Jamaica," clearing all the checkpoints probably designed to weed out dope smugglers and picky tourists demanding perfect weather, and then catching a ride to the hotel.
"When is it going to get sunny?" we asked the driver.
"Tomorrow," he said. "No problem. Jamaicans like this weather. It is a change from all the sun we usually have."
"Well, at least it's not raining," Barbara said.
It began to rain. LVENDER SHARKS' TEETH
The tour package we bought got us rooms in the Seawind Beach Resort, a large oceanfront hotel on the west side of Montego Bay in the area called Freeport. The Seawind has 403 rooms in two 10-story towers and a number of two-level garden apartment-style buildings. Our room is what is called a standard room: full bath, hot water and towels, no television. At Ocean City, it would be a middle/low-quality room.
The Seawind has a long, attractive beach, lined by palm trees and thatched umbrellas. The resort also has tennis courts, two pools, several bars and restaurants, an outdoor stage and organized activities (many of which are described as having a common end, as in "and we'll all get drunk").
After changing from our Winter-in-Washington clothes, we decided to brave the showers and stroll the beach and deck area. We darted from palm tree to umbrella to cabana, trying to avoid getting wet, before we made it to one of two large oceanfront, open-air bars at Seawind. We ordered something to drink and that's when we discovered that we needed sharks' teeth, specifically lavender sharks' teeth. These plastic pop beads were sold, of course, only back at the office, about 50 wet yards away. The S/Ts, as they were known, sold for about 80 American cents each and were used as the currency of the resort. This made keeping track of spending and expenses difficult. It is hard to take "spending" seriously when the coin of the realm is a plastic pop bead shaped like a shark's tooth. That is why my expense account lists such items as: "Flowers for beautiful women interviewed on Bathing-Suits-Optional Beach: 762 S/Ts." (This is my way of getting even with accounting. Let them figure out how to convert American dollars to Jamaican dollars to S/Ts and then back to American dollars. I can't.) MUSICAL INTERLUDE
After we solved the S/T mystery, the rain and winds gained strength, forcing us inside. We checked out a Scrabble game and began playing on our room's sixth-floor balcony overlooking the pool, the outdoor bars and the covered outdoor stage.
I was about to think of a word you can make out of a G-F-Z-Y-C-C-W combination when the loudspeakers came alive. Below, a man took the stage and said, "Please welcome the marching band."
"The Rose Bowl was earlier this month and the Super Bowl isn't until Sunday," I told Barbara. "Is there a Montego Bay Bowl?"
"Take this," she said using up all her letters, winning $1.
Just before I decided not to throw myself off the balcony over my shocking defeat, the band marched in and began playing that old Jamaican standard, "Swanee." The 17-member band, accomplished at playing but still needing drill practice, lurched through some maneuver for "Swanee" and then shifted into a new arrangement as they then began playing the national anthems of the United States and Canada. For a moment, I thought we were at a Capitals-Maple Leafs game.
The combination of rain, the defeat in Scrabble and "Swanee" were too much for me. So I decided to find a weather forecast. QEST FOR FORECAST, PART I
I brought a Walkman with me, figuring I could spend the hours on the beach listening to Springsteen, Freddie Jackson and Whitney Houston. I turned through the AM/FM bands, but failed to find anything but reggae music and Spanish- language broadcasters, who probably were giving round-the-clock weather reports for all I could tell.
I decided to do some investigating. USA Today, the only American newspaper I could find outside the airport, said the temperature in Kingston was 88, and the skies were sunny. Something was wrong. The front desk, I calculated, would give me the stock answer: "It will be sunny tomorrow." What I needed, I decided, was some sage -- someone tuned into the ether but without the break-it-to-them-never bias of the typical beach businessperson. I needed an artist, in other words.
Down on the beach, behind the stage, was just such a man -- Don Crichton, an imposing presence who reminded me of Dick Gregory. I dashed through a lull in the rain and found him.
"When is it going to get sunny?" I asked.
He smiled tightly and said, "Let me tell you a story."
Great! I thought. Here's a guy with real insight. He'll know when the weather will break.
"Legend has it that the sun always comes out just after I sell one of my paintings," Crichton said.
"Apparently you haven't sold any recently," I replied, smelling a con.
"Just so, but there is always hope, for selling and for Sun."
(Had this offer been proposed on the second day of rain, I would have bought a painting and listed it on my expense account as "Weather control: 1429 S/Ts." Instead, I opted to wait.)
"I'll settle for a forecast. What's the word?"
"Tomorrow it will be sunny -- if I sell a painting," said the artist. LORD LARO AND ACTS OF GOD
The rain shifted to a light drizzle, so we decided to eat outside the hotel at the Richmond Hill Inn, an elegant open-air inn and restaurant overlooking Montego Bay. But then the light drizzle changed back to heavy winds and rain, so we returned to Seawind to check out the nightlife.
Evening entertainment at Seawind is held in two locations, outside on the stage near the pool when the weather is nice, which it usually is, and at an indoor disco after 11 p.m. The weather forced the hotel to use a large dining room facing the beach as the club for Lord Laro, a singer voted "Most Professional Entertainer in Jamaica."
"Sounds like we can hear some good reggae from Lord Laro," I said.
As we entered, the tall, animated Lord Laro was singing that old reggae favorite, "A Place for Us," from "West Side Story."
To be fair, LL did shift to more local songs after skipping through several show and Sinatra tunes. The songs, he claimed, were Jamaican favorites. They were Jamaican, all right, and they were ribald. Even raunchy. In fact, some were downright dirty local hits, accentuated with much twisting and squirming of Lord Laro's trim body.
But Lord Laro got done in by Providence. Every time he tried to get really dirty, his microphone would short-circuit, and the music would fade away. This would set off broad applause. Unfortunately, the emcee took that as enthusiasm and kept bringing back Lord Laro for dirty encores. Then the mike would short out again, Lord Laro would stop singing, we would applaud and . . . well, you know how it goes when you're on vacation.
Finally, after four encores and an equivalent number of divine interventions, Lord Laro left for good. The audience then shifted to the Cave, the disco on the first floor of one of the high-rise buildings. You enter the Cave by stooping down to pass through a low-cut door. Inside, the Cave looks like a gray-flocked version of Caveman City. Lots of phony stalactites, lots of people and no life. Everyone looked like they were in hibernation, so we left. LENIN'S LIMO
Saturday started out promising, patches of blue amid the clouds. That was the view from our room looking north, toward the ocean, anyway. To the south it was raining, and the clouds looked like they were there for the day.
"Let's go to Ocho Rios," I suggested. "But I'll rent a car and driver."
"Why?" Barbara asked.
"I'm reluctant to drive on the left side of the roads here," I said.
I consulted with the hotel manager, who suggested one driver. But his asking price -- $120 American, no sharks' teeth about it -- forced me to reconsider and to decide to rent a car from the hotel agent.
This was where we met the Lenin Limo, which is what we came to call the Soviet-made version of a small Fiat called the Lada.
"First," said the cheerful car rental agent, "I'll show you the spare."
This was bad news, for two reasons: first, I wondered why this was the most important part of the car (Hertz never shows me the spare), and second, the spare was balding. I checked the car's tires. They were balding, too. Next, we checked and noted all the damage: dented trunk, destroyed right turn light, more dents. A real bad sign.
After a quick orientation, Barbara and I got in, consulted a map and lurched off. "If I stray over to the right side of the road out of habit, yell or something," I asked.
"Okay," she replied while I fumbled with the shift. "How about yelling about those goats ahead? Do they count?"
Small goats wander freely in Jamaica, and have a fondness for roads. We steered around them.
Ocho Rios is another oceanfront resort town 67 miles east of Montego Bay. To get there you take Highway A1, the main coastal road that is a narrow two-lane, often-shoulderless path taking you past scenery of breathtaking beauty and areas of poverty that will shock first-time visitors to the Caribbean.
Our Lenin Limo cared not for the beauty or the poverty. It did have a tendency to pull left when skidding to a stop on its balding tires. And driving on the left wasn't as much of a problem as coping with shifting with my left hand or figuring out what the unmarked buttons and knobs controlled.
Another problem drivers encounter in Jamaica is the result of roads and highways being built without adequate shoulders. Parked cars, stalled cars, idling cars and abandoned cars are left in the roadway. This requires you to be prepared at all times to swerve. And then there are the Jamaican drivers, who never saw a car they couldn't pass. All this creates additional worries for drivers already trying to cope with goats, rain, balding tires, goats, the beauty of the scenery, the sadness of the poverty, and goats. Drivers have to pay attention.
The A1 drive takes you past beaches and rock outcroppings where the storm-driven surf sprays 30 feet into the air at times, creating some sensational scenery. We also passed some of the former sugar plantations -- the "Great Houses," as they are known in the islands -- open for tours. Rose Hall, just east of Montego Bay, was built about two centuries ago and became notorious when Anne Palmer became mistress of the house. She is said to have terrorized her husbands and slaves before the slaves finally rebelled and killed the woman they called "The White Witch." Good Hope, another two-century-old great house near Falmouth, allows visitors to roam its grounds on horseback.
If it were not raining, a horse might have been a better ride than the Lada. CRAFTS: SOFT AND HARD SELLS
About 25 miles out of Montego Bay, after passing through the village of Falmouth, we came across an old plantation, its large whitewashed stone warehouses and buildings covered in flowering vines and protected by high walls. Today this property is "Carabatik," a factory and shop owned by former Chicagoan Muriel Chandler.
The driveway to Carabatik is sealed off by a double steel gate. Next to it is an intercom. When we press the button, a woman's voice says, "So you finally made it!"
Unsure whom she was expecting, we explain ourselves and are buzzed in. On the path into the lush gardens that seem to fill the area between warehouses, the main house and Luminous Bay, we are greeted by Muriel, an imposing sandy-haired woman dressed in one of her creations, a short and casual batik dress.
Muriel is an artist. She makes cotton and silk dresses, wall hangings, scarves, shirts and other items in her factory and sells them out of her shop. Don't expect a great savings. Her silk dresses carried price tags of up to $650. A visit to her place is worth a stop. In one warehouse, once used to store rum, is her art gallery. Batik "paintings" -- animals, still-lifes and more -- hang in this gallery.
Muriel and I chatted a bit. There was no pressure to buy. Rather the visit allowed her to show off her creations, something she obviously enjoyed, and demonstrate the hot wax process that she uses to dye the fabric with several colors in different patterns or designs. Her soft-sell approach was a marked contrast to our next stop.
The center of Ocho Rios has a feature similar to many large cities in the Caribbean: a craft park. In Ocho Rios, the hard-sell begins even before you enter the park, with men carrying carved birds and toys approaching you, pleading for you to buy.
Inside the fenced-off park, visitors find stall after stall of crafts. The strange thing is that the crafts appear to be all the same: machine-made T-shirts, sweatshirts, pants and dresses, carved wooden masks, animals, boxes and bowls, and straw bags and hats. The difference is in the stall owner and the intensity of their approach. Some were friendly, even informative in explaining the crafts and how they were made. Many, though, were worse than American car salesmen.
I couldn't take it. I left the park, having had my fill of high-pressure salesmanship. Barbara stayed on to buy a small item. This $2 purchase apparently marked her as a big spender, for we had to fight our way through more men trying to sell small wooden items before we got back to the Lada.
The craft park remains fixed in memory for one other reason: We met a man dressed as a tree. He made a fairly good decorated tree, too. Perhaps he was a Druid. QUEST FOR FORECAST, PART II
One woman at the Ocho Rios Craft Park also remains a fond memory. She didn't try high-pressure selling with me. Her name was Pat, and her warm smile convinced me to look at her shop even though I did not plan to buy.
"I'm not buying, but how about a weather forecast?" I asked.
"It will be sunny tomorrow," she said.
"I've heard that before."
"When it is sunny, remember Pat and come to buy."
She gave me her business card. CLYDE & OTHER WONDERS OF NATURE
On the way back to Montego Bay, we turned off to visit Dunn's River Falls, one of Jamaica's most photographed attractions. At the entrance to the park, a young Jamaican man wearing an official-looking T-shirt flagged us to a halt. He then approached Barbara's window, leaned down and said, "You going to see the falls?"
"You must have a guide," he said. "It is a rule."
He stuck his arm through the gap in the window and said, "I will be happy to be your guide. My name is Clyde. What is your name?"
Strange, I thought, the guidebooks didn't mention this. "Sorry," I told Clyde, "we'll do without your services."
At the entrance to the Park, officials told us that we needed a guide only if we wanted to climb the limestone layers of the 600-foot-high cascade of water and foam. Then, they said, the park would provide the guide.
The falls are beautiful, layers of foam and water forming a wide staircase that can be climbed or viewed by walking a wooden stairway that parallels the water. Surrounding the falls is a forest of trees, vines and flowering plants that is thick enough to be called a jungle. By this time, the humidity and rain had combined to ensure both of us were soaked. COWS: A PROBLEM
Hurrying back to the hotel, we missed our turn near the Montego Bay airport and wound up driving the hill road through the city. The twisting road was an adventure, not only because the pavement was slick and the tires were bald, but because we encountered a new traffic hazards: cows.
I rounded a curve and Barbara yelled, "Look out! There're cows in the road."
There were two in my lane, ambling as freely as a dog without a leash.
The next evening, we asked a cab driver why cows roam freely. He answered, "Because the owner does not keep them in."
"But isn't that a problem? Aren't cows valuable?" Barbara asked.
"Yes, the owner must go and look for them. It is a big problem," the driver said. This was one of the few times a Jamaican said there was a problem. The national password appears to be "No Problem." QUEST FOR FORECAST, PART III
That evening, before we went to dinner, I got out the Walkman again. This time I caught the 7 p.m. news. Aha! I celebrated. Finally, we'd get a forecast.
I listened patiently to news about the government's struggle with Alcoa over the reopening of an aluminum plant, puzzled over the cricket scores (someone had 328 somethings, but I'm not sure who won) and listened to the reading of funeral announcements. But no weather news. GRAY CLOUDS, BLUE DAYS
By this time, on the second evening of our stay in Montego Bay, both depression and mildew were settling in. We couldn't get a weather forecast. The sky kept teasing us, showing some patches of blue sky and then tormenting us with downpours seconds later.
"Want to see if we can catch a flight home Sunday?" I asked Barbara. "We can then watch the Super Bowl." This was on my mind because our room did not have a television. Finding a Super Bowl party was on my list of must-dos.
"No," she replied. "It will probably turn sunny on the ride to the airport. And then I'll really cry." THE SUN AND THE SWIMSUITS
The Sun arrived in Montego Bay on Sunday morning, shocking mildewed tourists from the United States.
We hurried through breakfast, put on our swimsuits and hit the beach. The temperature was in the high 80s. The water, warmer than it gets in Ocean City at the best of times, was clear and light green.
But duty calls. I was here to work, so I gathered my reporter's notebook and pen, put on my Redskins cap and began walking east to the last beach at the resort. The one with the big sign: "Swimsuits Optional Beyond This Point."
Nudity-optional beaches are new to Jamaica. The first was opened several years ago near Negril, on the west end of the island. Some resorts have them. My search for truth had brought me here. Are they used? That was my assignment.
I came up to the sign and the low rock seawall that extended across the beach.
I cleaned my sunglasses.
I peered over. No nudity. All bathers wearing suits. No story.
The things you have to do to earn a living. WHAT TEAM DOES PHIL ROOT FOR?
It's Super Bowl night and we don't have a TV. A few calls find us a Super Bowl party at Sandals, an all-inclusive resort on the other side of Montego Bay. We ride over just before the game begins, both of us glowing crimson from our day in the Sun.
Sandals is a lavish resort, with more facilities than Seawind. I wished we had stayed there. Sandals did have one drawback: Broncos fans. It was filled with them. Among the observers were three NFL players, New York Giants receiver and punt returner Phil McConkey, Philadelphia defense tackle Jerome Brown and Green Bay Packers linebacker John Anderson. They were at Sandals to give their insights and predictions at halftime. (The things you have to do to earn a living . . .)
Fortunately, it didn't take a genius to analyze that game at the half. McConkey, who sat impassively through the first half, was asked whether the Redskins would repeat as champs.
"What happened to us will happen to them," he said. "Competition."
Brown, the Eagle as gentle off the field as he is big, smiled and said, "Yeh, from us!"
The Broncos fans at Sandals seemed to disappear about 25 minutes into the game. A horde of Redskins fans, previously hidden, took their places. QUEST FOR FORECAST: EPILOGUE
The last morning in Jamaica is partly cloudy, partly sunny and occasionally showery. It doesn't matter to me. I have such a bad sunburn that I look like a tomato. I pack and visit with the hotel manager and ask, "Why couldn't we ever get a weather forecast?"
"That's because it never changes here," she said. "The weather is always the same, mostly sunny, unless we have a hurricane, and we haven't had one of those for 25 years or more."
"But it wasn't sunny this weekend. What about the rain?" I persist.
"Ahhh, we just call that 'liquid sunshine'," she said.
Defeated, I return to resume packing. As we board the Air Jamaica A300 for the flight home, we encounter another couple we saw on the way down.
"How was your weekend?" Barbara asks.
"Great," the woman replies. "And yours?"
"Not so hot," Barbara says. "The rain, you know."
"Oh," the woman says, "we were on the south side of the island, near Kingston, and didn't get a bit of rain. We heard you did, though. Too bad."
For a future Weekend Getaway, staff writer Larry Fox will explore the full meaning of "April in Paris." Or so we told him. YOUR SEARCH FOR THE SUN
The following three-night getaways to the Sun are available at area travel agencies: Freeport, for $279, including air fare and room in an in-town hotel; Nassau, $315 for air fare and an in-town hotel, and Jamaica, for $439 for airfare and beachfront hotel. Beach-front hotels in Nassau and Freeport are available for a higher fee. The prices include transfers between the airport and hotel and tips at the hotel.
The rain during our visit was unusual, but the change from Washington's frigid season was pleasant. As my story relates, the southern shores of Jamaica enjoyed sunny days while the northern beaches got rain. Weather fronts that pass through the southern United States can affect the weather in the Caribbean, but this usually means cooler temperatures. The rainy months in Jamaica are May, June and November, according to the local tourism officials.
If you want to take a three-night trip to the Caribbean, you probably will have to go to the Bahamas or Jamaica. The other islands have packages for six nights or more. And if you must go this weekend or next, you may have to go to a resort that is not your first or second choice. This isn't bad, it just may be different from what you wanted. My trip cost a total of $853 (or 1,066 sharks' teeth), and that includes air fare, room, meals, the Lenin Limo, exit taxes and everything else. Barbara's airfare, room, meals and other costs were additional.
Some questions to ask the travel agent:
How far from the airport is your resort hotel? If it is in Ocho Rios, for example, you may spend two to three hours getting there after your plane lands. For a short vacation, it may not be worth it.
If you like to shop at local shops and mingle with the local citizens, you should ask if the hotel has a shuttle bus or if it is a short cab ride from the town.
What does the package price include at the hotel? The Sandals resort I mentioned earlier is an all-inclusive resort. That means all meals, drinks, wine, snacks and entertainment, whether water sports or live music, are included in the price. Everything but outside tours and souvenirs. That is a good deal, monetarily. However, if you like variety in your nightlife or dining, you may find yourself spending additional money to eat or play outside the resort. Consider what your usual vacation habits are before committing yourself to one resort. The luxurious Sandals, by the way, usually accepts only bookings by the week but does allow some three- and four-night visits, reservations permitting. Have your travel agent contact them directly.
Do they permit children (if you plan to take them)? The Caribbean resorts, for the most part, are for couples and singles. Many do not even allow children. During my stay in Jamaica I saw a total of only four or five children at all of the resorts I visited.
If the sight of nude sunbathers bothers you, ask whether the resort has a swimsuits-optional policy. If they do at only a section of their beach, it probably will not offend you. Some, however, have it beach-wide.
Ask what travel documents you need. Passports are best, but most Caribbean islands will admit you with a birth certificate and an identification card with your photo on it. Driver's licenses work fine. If in doubt, call the embassy.