Exactly 4 weeks ago I was fresh off the plane in Jamaica. It never ceases to amaze me how fast time passes by. I looked forward to this vacation for months and it has already been a month since we were there. I’ve been holding on to this post for awhile, mostly because I have a little white furball who consumes my life, but also maybe a little because once this is up, then Jamaica is over. I’ve already developed the pictures, but up the souvenirs, and finally had to get a pedicure redo after my little toe flowers started to peel off yesterday.
So, here is my last post on Jamaica….our very small venture into Montego Bay.
As recent at 2005, Jamaica had the worst crime rate in the world. In fact, most travel sites recommend that tourists stay safely within the walls of their resort after dark. This is not only recommended in the country’s largest city, Kingston, but also in Montego Bay. As Jamaica’s third most populous city, Montego Bay has a population of under 100,000, but has the busiest airport thanks to the tourist industry.
Despite the risk, Aaron and I made the decision to leave the safe compounds of the resort and venture into the real world for a bit. TIP: Instead of taking a taxi in, we took the free shuttle to another Sandal’s resort (Sandal’s Carlyse) and walked from there into town. The half mile walk from the hotel to the main street, “Hip Strip” was more of an inner city experience. Lots of people sitting on the porch outside drug stores and businesses, lots of people driving erratically, and lots of people gawking at me in my big floppy hat. Hip Strip is the “tourist approved” spot of Montego Bay.
To say that we really explored the city would be like saying that we explored Las Vegas without making it off the main strip. We were in a highly tourist centered area. For example, we walked by the Jamaican Bobsled Café (owned by Margaritaville), Harley Davidson Jamaica (come on…really?), and Margariataville itself which we had seen from the backside the day before on our Catamaran Cruise.
Even that small venture into the real world was kind of stressful. Jamaicans are amazing sales people. Every person wants you to come inside their Jamaican store and they will offer you a special price. Men wait on the side of the road offering their taxi services. If you say no, then they suddenly become tour guides wanting to show you around Montego Bay. People sell CD’s out of their backpack. We were asked if we “Bob Marley,” which I can only assume was a reference to smoking pot. We got lured into some back alley flea market where I learned about what the colors of Jamaica (and the colors of Rastafarian) represent. The back alley itself and the people in it turned out to be ok, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend going off the beaten path. With all of the interesting characters out there, I didn’t want to pull my camera out too much though, so I didn’t get a lot of great pictures.
One of the main reasons we wanted to go into town was to get some good deals on souvenirs and folk art. In all our travels, rather than bring back souvenir spoons or shot glasses or t-shirts, the Lavenders like to decorate our home with reminders of the places we’ve been. We were in search of something less mass produced and more authentic.
Jamaicans are a bartering culture, which I LOVE. You get to name your price on anything. It is like a 25% off sale wherever you! Obviously the resort store and the airport stores aren’t negotiable, but any street vendor or even drug store is willing to work with you in order to make a sale. We did our research by stopping by the resort store and pricing items, so when we were bartering, we knew the estimated retail value of each.
For example, a similar version of this vase cost $40 in the resort shop (plus 17.5% sales tax), but I got it from a street vendor for $30, no tax. Another great thing: everyone takes American currency! They name their prices in American dollars, and they give you back change in American dollars. I don’t know if this would be the case further into town, but Jamaicans are well versed in the exchange rate.
We did exchange some of our currency as souvenirs. Imagine our surprise when our $10 USD converted to $865 Jamaican dollars. While the exchange rate seems to fluctuate, you can get anywhere between 85-90 Jamaican dollars to every US dollar. This explains why we saw lunch advertised for $1500.
Another glaringly apparent aspect of Montego Bay is the poverty. Stepping outside the beautiful, luxurious resort is a wonderful reminder that while I see this place as paradise, other people live in abandoned buildings with no doors or windows. I’d like to think that by buying merchandise straight from the artisans and local shop owners, I’m helping support the local economy. This island depends on tourism to survive, and it is a little heartbreaking to realize that when our economy suffers, they suffer and they have very little control over the situation.
So, there it is. My Jamaica vacation has been photographed and documented. I’m glad I went, though I don’t know if I would go back unless I had a reason. With all the places in the world that I haven’t seen, I think I can check this little piece of paradise off my list and head to the next destination.