In the tropics, as elsewhere, people have gone to pieces. But the man who would go to pieces in the tropics would go to pieces anywhere. -- Alec Waugh, "Hot Countries"
The doors swing open, discharging the traveler into the blinding noon sunlight of Jamaica's north coast and onto a kind of real-life film set that incorporates the livelier aspects of the reggae classic "The Harder They Come" with that old paean to confidence men, "Beat the Devil."
This is the airport at Montego Bay.
The breezeway at the entrance is a crush of glad-handers and touts of all sorts: "guides," procurers, rogues, artificers, swindlers, knaves, tricksters, car-for-hire men, operators of little shuttle vans and taxis, and an impressive assortment of gentlemen selling pharmaceuticals and other controlled substances.
The traveler descends into the throng, an obstacle course, a human gauntlet cheerfully offering the sins of the world at prices designed to tempt even the born-again.
It is a warm, if startling, greeting, and an auspicious one for travelers weary of the sanitized holiday. It confirms the oft-held suspicion that despite the official stance that the island is on the straight and narrow, the truth may well be another matter, and things down here are nicely out of control.
This is not a story about renting a house in Jamaica, although a house was rented. Nor is it a story about what to do in Jamaica, although things were done -- and things were done to us. This is a story about the people of Jamaica, a people possessed of an amazing tolerance and a superhuman patience, both fine qualities necessary for the preservation of their sanity during the high season. In fact, outright hostility is rare, and considering the way many tourists behave, this is astounding.
Americans seem to fall to pieces all over the world, but somehow, in the very hot climates, and especially in the West Indies, they seem to run amok with a greater velocity. And so it is with Jamaica.
Although the island boasts a rather substantial number of eccentrics and free spirits, the general populace appears patient, courteous and agreeably amused.
On very hot days, at the height of the tourist season, it may seem that Jamaica's concentration of the free of spirit and the eccentric is chiefly in Negril, a beach resort on the westernmost point of the island. In the evening, along the winding Lighthouse Road that snakes through the west end of Negril, the streets are scattered with the walking wounded, the young and those who would be young again -- American tourists. Sunburned or bronzed, often booze-befuddled. Alas, I must report that my countrymen are not always on their best behavior in such places as this.
But we have not reached Negril yet.
To do this we must first rent a car for the two-hour drive along the north coast from Montego Bay.
Some wag in the employ of the rental car agency back in the Republic had sworn by the prophet that a splendid and air-conditioned sedan of the very latest design would be awaiting us on our arrival.
We had not anticipated the scampish sense of humor that car rental folks use when dealing with tropical destinations. And neither, we found, had the throng of our countrymen who were laying siege to the company's counter.
The lone car available -- rejected by the throng -- was a much-battered, canary-yellow Ford that appeared to have recently been involved in stunt work. It was sitting out on the parking lot, with two of the company's top men at the ready. They assured us that this was one of the fleetest vehicles in the island and would stand us in good stead. This was while they filled out a lengthy form, like an insurance company accident report, noting in admirable detail that many of the car's features were missing and/or damaged.
Realizing that there was no way back, given the battle royal raging at the indoor counter, we shrugged off the absence of rear-view mirrors and ignored the many dents, the missing rear bumper and the lack of seat belts. We would learn later the thrill of night driving without working headlights.
Space does not permit a lengthy discourse on driving on the island of Jamaica. But let the record show that this combines elements that will remind even the heartiest motorists of some of the cinema's great chase scenes. (If the reader has ever seen "Johnny's Hell Car" at any state fair or dirt track in the Deep South, imagine that spectacle out on the public roads.) I should add, too, that the island has an abundance of hairpin turns.
Add, too, that this is all done, in British fashion, on the left. And, there are no shoulders on the roads in Jamaica.
We plunged into the main street of Montego Bay, filled with a crush of pedestrians, and headed down the coast for our destination, a village in Westmoreland Parish, near the celebrated resort of Negril.
Minutes out of Montego Bay, despite the sight of a naked Rastafarian doing what looked like the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises by the roadside, we were at peace. The road, despite its design flaws, runs through a lush and lovely landscape, with enormous coconut palm groves dotting the fields and hillsides.
The madness and confusion of Montego Bay slips away. But not for long.
Soon, at every bend in the highway, children of all ages, some tiny and barely out of diapers, rushed to the roadside and pantomimed most convincingly the act of smoking and inhaling, shouting, "White man, white man. Ganja. Ganja."
We had rented a house, sight unseen, on the outskirts of Negril, about 10 miles from the village. The preliminaries leading up to our arrival had been sufficiently wild that we were beginning to fear the very worst, but our accommodations proved to be quite acceptable.
Our vacation "villa" was actually a large, two-story house that had been subdivided into a couple of apartments, surrounded by a great swath of tropical vegetation and palm trees. The house was simple, white-washed with a crushed stone driveway and sand walkway leading down to an immaculate stretch of beach about 100 feet away. There were no immediate neighbors, privacy assured by the presence of a swamp.
What our villa lacked in grandeur it made up for in staff.
Jamaica seems a labor-intensive world, and here in this little corner of Westmoreland Parish we found ourselves with an amazing number of hired hands at the ready to assist us.
The first of these was Verona, our housekeeper, who was assisted by a half-dozen young women who came and went at all hours of the day, bringing fresh fruit, folding towels, sweeping up sand. Verona was about 35, and a woman of strong opinions who was eager to share them.
There was also a goodly assortment of groundskeepers engaged in everything from raking the lawn and beach to trimming the foliage with machetes.
Chief among these was Reid, an affable fellow whose amiability was perhaps connected to the fact that most of the time the good man was stoned during his waking hours. As the result of chain-smoking dope, Reid moved in slow motion and, as is often the case in these situations, laughed a great deal, unexplainedly.
The other local resident, though not officially on staff at the villa, was Lloyd, a young man in his early twenties who operated a tiny shack of a bar nearby called, modestly, Lloyd's.
We spent many evenings at Lloyd's, discussing the great themes and playing a board game that resembles dominoes.
Lloyd's consisted of a half-dozen stools at the bar and three little tables. The bar contained a venerable Coke machine, a dozen or so bottles of various liquors and Lloyd's radio, a standard boom box resembling a small steamer trunk from which emanated the sounds of his favorite entertainer, Miss Dolly Parton.
The ranks of Lloyd's regulars were swelled by a half-dozen gentlemen who had been engaged to build a vacation home nearby, but, unsupervised as they were, chose instead to make merry at Lloyd's drinking a revolting concoction made with warm milk and cre`me de menthe.
Sometimes, quite late at night, the talk turned to matters of great importance.
What does snow feel like?
Was Dolly Parton the greatest woman in the world?
Not long after our arrival, we decided to provision ourselves with a drive into Negril. The center of the town boasts a modern complex of shops -- but to stop one's car here is an invitation to disaster.
Swarms of welcomers descend: small boys begging for empty bottles, young gentlemen with banking proclivities asking to exchange your U.S. dollars at a most attractive rate. Others hawk fish or lobsters. Some wish to wash your car. Others wish only to watch your car. Others wish only to watch you.
Some will offer to assist the traveler, carry packages or run errands. One man offered to be my friend. This for only $2. Friendship is inexpensive here.
Another citizen, glassy-eyed and grinning madly, beckoned us. "Want to see what I've got in this box?" he asked. We did not.
Another afternoon, while I was driving alone, a young man virtually threw himself in front of the car and then hopped in the passenger's side.
"I want you to help me find a white girlfriend," he entreated.
I allowed as in my limited experience, girlfriends, regardless of hue, were often more trouble than they were worth. As I had no alternative other than to bodily remove him from the car, and as he seemed a pleasant fellow, I gave him a lift along a torturous back road while he quizzed me on the ways of white women.
This conversation led, inevitably, to his attempt to sell me something. He started off by mentioning a place where I could get a discount on souvenirs and then hit the controlled substances. Next stop, the pleasures of the flesh. I was shocked to learn that this fresh-faced lad was a procurer.
"Would you like to have a party with a Jamaican girlfriend?" he asked.
He mused on this for a few moments.
"Would you like to have a party with a Jamaican boyfriend?" he countered.
No again, you saucy fellow.
"I'm not really interested," I said, not wishing to offend him. "My wife is here with me," I added.
"She can come, too," he countered grandly.
I dropped my passenger off a few miles later. The lesson here may be not to pick up hitchhikers, but the more adventuresome souls seeking a lift can climb into a moving vehicle with extraordinary dexterity.
Negril is a rather vulgar place, often quite depressing with its legions of stoned students, local fast-buck artists and every manner of confidence scam in Christendom.
However, this is the place if the traveler wishes to avoid the sanitized holiday.
The resort's fame, if that is the word, is for nude bathing, but reports of this practice are greatly exaggerated and voyeurs who trek there will find no bevies of bare-breasted beauties on every beach. The few nude sun-worshippers we espied were pale and pudgy. Disappointing after all the naughty talk.
Much of Negril consists of shacks and stalls selling barbecued fish and jerked chicken and pork, curried goat and conch stew. Other shacks sell great piles of fresh fruit, oranges, pineapples, melons, mangoes, bananas, limes.
The roadway is pockmarked and poorly paved, and after a drenching, early evening rain, easily flooded.
There are some very splendid houses along the cliffs on the Lighthouse Road in the west end of Negril, private and protected behind high hedges of bougainvillea and other bright flowers, or walls of green bamboo and tall coconut palms. The west end is also a warren of boarding houses and tiny hotels packed often to overflowing with throngs of American students and a good few of their brethren from Europe, mostly Germans and Scandinavians.
At night these visitors pack the reggae bars and mostly small, locally owned restaurants along the Lighthouse Road -- Bertie's, Pee Wee's, Chicken Lavish and Erica's. (Some of these are really hovels, and one, called Da Buss, is just that, an abandoned double-decker bus converted into a restaurant of sorts.)
One evening, after a rather protracted cocktail hour, we drove down to Negril to dine at Bertie's, an eating establishment that looks like something out of a Walker Percy photograph.
Bertie, all 250 pounds of him, was out front manning a homemade barbecue pit, jerking chicken, a style of barbecue. His business also served as something of a corner store, selling groceries. The premises were lit by several naked light bulbs, and the air was heavy with the smell of a certain controlled substance and barbecue smoke.
Bertie's is the sort of place where one sees one's countrymen and women at their very worst. (The diners that evening were young preps, investment banker types, old hippies, a few middle-age rummies and beach bums.) They are most successful in assaulting the sensibilities of the local population, the vast majority of whom are gainfully employed in enterprises organized around the ancient practice of parting the fool from his money. These eager entrepreneurs stalk their quarry with an unswerving patience and devotion, and no amount of rebukes or refusals will halt them in their appointed rounds.
From quite early in the morning, long before the scorching sun has begun to beat down on the town's famous seven-mile-long beach, until long after the most hearty soul has staggered bedward, there are citizens of Jamaica engaged in any variety of pecuniary ventures.
There are young gentlemen who stalk beach-goers with armloads of locally made jewelry and other baubles. Others are heavily laden with an assortment of carved birds and other crude attempts to duplicate the sculpture of West Africa via Taiwan. And still others come selling shells, starfish, wooden canes and sugar cane, T-shirts, oranges, ice cream, straw hats and oil made from aloe, a balm for the sunburned.
Certain enterprising young women also walk the beach offering to put cornrows in women visitors' hair. Others proffer a massage.
Vice and illegal substances play the greatest role in the never-ending quest for tourist dollars. Despite the stern warnings of government-issued tourist brochures, a visitor would have to be extremely elderly and perhaps wheelchair-bound not to be approached by someone selling dope.
One morning, having heard the cheery news that Jamaican money had again taken a dive and was being devalued, we decided to drive to the small city of Savannah-la-Mar on the south coast, about an hour away. The purpose of the trip was to see something of Jamaica and find a bank where there were no lines.
Sav-la-Mar was the town for this.
There is no tourist industry to speak of in Sav-la-Mar, which appeared to be a port of some description. As a result, the citizens went about their business ignoring us, a welcomed respite.
Our banking business was swiftly attended to, and we moved on to the general post office, where we met Mr. Brown, as he called himself.
Mr. Brown was the resident tout in Sav-la-Mar, and as the pickings were a bit leaner hereabouts than in Negril, he staked a quick claim on us.
"Please, sir," he greeted us, "I will not molest you."
That was cheering news, indeed.
So, Mr. Brown, who was wearing a safari suit and a porkpie hat and the sort of sunglasses favored by the highway patrol below the Mason-Dixon line, became our personal guide.
Unlike so many of his countrymen, Mr. Brown had a style of guiding that was uniquely his own. There was no line of jolly patter. He attempted to sell us nothing. He had little to say.
What Mr. Brown offered was his presence, which discouraged others. He was a kind of escort service, and he tagged along with us as we wandered down the main drag of town and through a bustling fish and produce market.
At the waterfront there was some sort of old fort where a number of children were swimming naked.
"This is a very old place, sir," advised Mr. Brown. "It dates from around the time of Christ."
Mr. Brown had a unique view of his country's history, too.
Our next stop was necessitated by our need to use a pay telephone. Mr. Brown allowed as there was such a thing at the main telephone exchange in the center of town and so we walked there.
The lone pay phone had a line of perhaps eight or 10 citizens waiting to use it. But this was where the services of a personal guide came into play.
Mr. Brown walked with purpose to the front of the line and removed the telephone receiver from the hand of the gentleman using it. And beckoned us.
We had not anticipated this but used the phone quickly, and decided then that it was time to rid ourselves of Mr. Brown and move on.
The bill for his services was settled with a few bucks, and he cheerfully wished us a "God bless you all" and slipped away in search of other quarry.
The evening of our visit to Bertie's, after a very spicy platter of jerked chicken and a couple of Red Stripe beers, we repaired down the road a piece to a local night spot that advertised "Sexy Bad Girls."
These ladies turned out to be sort of reggae go-go girls who danced most vigorously in white vinyl knee boots while the band played on. Elsewhere on the premises were gentlemen conducting games of chance, a sort of five-card monte and shell games.
The street outside the club was shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens not wishing to shell out the five bucks to enter but lustily cheering on the Sexy Bad Girls' gyrations. Also in the throng were several enterprising young women who exhorted us to break the seventh commandment with them for a modest fee. Although the night was young, we decided to repair to our vacation villa, lest too much of a good thing impede us the following morn.
It was at this point that the heavens broke open and a great deluge of rain fell on Negril, making driving nearly impossible.
At this moment we learned that our rental beauty did not have working headlights. Christopher Corbett's latest novel is "Vacationland" (Viking).