I don’t particularly like flying. To psyche myself out, I tend to chew gum or take a shot of rum or gum and a shot of rum. I had neither on my trip to Jamaica. What I did have is my standard full charge on my mobile, a collection of podcasts, and various 80s rock songs to listen to upon take off to avoid being hyper-aware about the fact that planes fly really high and really fast and, unlike me, the pilot might have been drinking.
Here’s a track-listing of some of my favorite takeoff 80s songs:
- Journey – Separate Ways
- Europe – The Final Countdown
- Survivor – Eye of the Tiger
- Toto – Africa
- The Cars – Heartbeat City
- Queen – We Are The Champions
- Michael Jackson – Beat It
- Guns N’ Roses – Welcome To The Jungle
- Prince – I Would Die 4 U
- Stevie Wonder – Part Time Lover
I was midway through Hidden Figures and the free pack of pretzels when we flew over what I suspected and subsequently confirmed was Cuba. Even from the dizzying height, I could make out fishing boats speckled across the ocean expanse, coasting over the ephemeral white caps, the shadows of colossal cumulus clouds covering them completely. At the same time, I took mental notes of the topography, lush green hills and mountain ranges, bordering islands, cerulean shoes, and utilitarian gray highways, I soon found myself misty-eyed and out of gum.
Little less than an hour later, the pilot came over the intercom and announced that we were going to be landing soon. I did a thorough mental check of things on my person, a review of what was in my bags and of course, thought of ways to protect the loose cash I had on me. Unlike my trip to Japan, I wanted to ensure that I didn’t make the mistake of not having money on me when I arrived in Jamaica. Earlier that morning, I grabbed some cash from the DFW currency exchange, feeling immediately richer upon receipt because of the denomination of Jamaican Dollars (e.g, $10 USD ≈ J$1300 JMD). This wouldn’t last long.
The plane coasted gingerly into Montego Bay a little after noon. Even with the sun beaming down, the scenery was remarkable and clashed with the internet’s sheltered and myopic descriptions of Jamaica’s as some kind of “gangster paradise”. I had to check myself, take in the fact that people likely say and think the same things about New Orleans, and of course, pick my jaw up from the floor. The island pulsed with color, revealing its crested contours as the piloted made gentle, sweeping arcs which ultimately brought us to a safe landing at Sangster International.
Once off the plane, I was herded along with the rest of the passengers through customs and welcomed to Jamaica. The airport was modest but overall functional and professional. What Sangster lacked in infrastructure, it made up for with the attentive, well dressed and mannered staff. I eventually found my way to the transportation terminal and got a taste of an aspect of Jamaican culture that would come to dominate my impression of the place: persistent, relentless, dude back-up, salesmanship, and hustle. After turning down a queue of eager drivers, I eventually found the one I had booked, but he didn’t have my itinerary and surprisingly, wasn’t interested in the Jamaican money I offered to pay him for a ride. To be fair, Jamaicans never are. After some haggling, I paid him about J$1800 (see?) and was escorted to my ride.
(The exchange rate of USD to JMD shifts depending on the person and the location. They typically want you to spend U.S dollars to get the edge and premium).
There was a guy from Canada brooding in the front seat when I jumped into a Japan-style Toyota Hiace passenger van. He entered and exited multiple times, irritable and jittery, like he’d had one too many macchiatos or not enough of them. I tossed my luggage in the back and sat down, looking and listening incredulously as he huffed and puffed to himself, to us all. He seemed to be angry because our driver was focused on packing the bus with more lost visitors like myself, for what he claimed was over 20 minutes. I guess it didn’t help that our driver was flirting with the Latina pair behind me and trying to sell me “Bob Marley” (Jamaican lingo for weed) while openly stating his belief that I was an “American gangster”. I told him I was a nerd and that I didn’t partake and that he was selling to the wrong guy. He laughed dismissively at my contention—most people usually do—and before the Canadian had a chance to bolt out of exasperation, jumped into the driver’s seat and we were off.
The Hiace smelled both clean and old, somewhere between the socks section of a Goodwill and fresh pack of copy paper. It still had the original Japanese signage and I still could make it out. “Good”, I thought, “not completely rusty”. During the drive, I distracted myself with the scenery of downtown Montego Bay, quietly reflecting on how crazy the previous 24 hours had been to a soundtrack of 80s soft rock. “Who’s going to hold you close, tonight?” I pantomimed of the Cars’ hit, “Drive”, while the girls behind me sang louder still.
Jamaica is a lush, green place that, if you can, you should walk to view it instead of driving.
Through the looking glass, I found the city vibrant, natural, and elegantly aged like a large Wes Anderson set piece—all of which at 100mph looked kind of like a 3-year-old’s melted crayon drawing. Fixing my eyes on details as they passed, I noticed hundreds of unfinished, generational homes, some of which actually housed families. High above them were the rich whose extravagant, completed homes sat secure in the verdant mountains, beautiful, towering, and obscene. The interstate was something akin to a standard 4-lane boulevard in America. The drivers swerved in and out of the lanes, often without signaling, often while tailgating. This “reckless” style of driving was apparently the safest way to drive in Jamaica according to our driver. I saw multiple advertisements advocating safer driving and even a seemingly current road fatality billboard. Beautiful as Jamaica was, I didn’t want to be apart of that number. I breathed a “holy-shit” and Windex tinged sigh of relief over arriving safely in Jamaica and said a small prayer to leave the same way.