Tres Cheap: A Travel Writer Storms the Caribbean
It's all in a day's work.
I travel faster than bad news. I comb my hair with a plastic salad fork and use a toothbrush handle to stir my instant coffee, flavoring it with Pepsodent. A money pouch hangs inside my pants, and on my wrist is a Timex with a black vinyl strap-not to tell the time but to tell the world: I'm cheap. Go rob somebody with a Rolex.
I can't afford to get robbed. It takes up too much time, my most precious commodity. The faster I travel, the more money I make. And after ten days of reviewing resorts throughout the Caribbean, I'm back where I started, at my favorite hotel in Jamaica, the Ocean View. Pink water fills the toilet, a tattered Popular Mechanics from 1997 sits on the bureau (compliments of the management), and an air conditioner grumbles loud enough to drown out the jet blast from the nearby airport.
You can tell a lot about a country by its airport. Is it named after a dictator? Do the pay phones actually work? How many crashed planes line the runway? Any sniffer dogs roaming the baggage carousels?
At the Montego Bay airport, the first thing you notice are the Jamaicans themselves, a hands-on kind of people. When I landed here the week before, I sought refuge in the bathroom, which didn't stop a mob of taxi drivers from following me in, tugging at my shirt while I stood at the urinal.
"Can I please pee in private?" I pleaded. Laughing among themselves, they moved back about two inches without loosening their grips on the duffel bag slung over my shoulder.
"I don't need a taxi. I'm walking," I said as I zipped up my pants. I ploughed my way through the taxi drivers, veering for the street while they pushed me in the direction of their taxis. They gave up when I told them where I was going.
"Let the cheap man walk. He go to de Ocean View."
After securing a room at the Ocean View, my first order of business was to find a means of transportation. To stay ahead of expenses, I look for the cheapest thing on wheels, which in Montego Bay was a derelict Honda 90, a step-through motorcycle with no rear view mirror, soft brakes, and licks of foam sticking out from the seat. Instead of a helmet, I was given a plastic construction hat that strapped around my chin. For just $14 a day, I had immediately gained the social stature of a Third-World pizza delivery boy.
Actually, my assignment was to review hotels. I’d walk through hotel after hotel while mumbling into a hidden microphone attached to a microcassette recorder in my pocket-lobby carpet suffers from mange, pool murky, garden smells like malathion-trying not to look like a crazed tourist with Tourette’s disease.
Speed was essential, not just to make money, but to remain one step ahead of hotel security, whose suspicions I tended to trigger. The trick was to appear as inconspicuous as possible, which is why I dressed in Permopress. Wrinkle-free Dockers and a Van Heusen shirt gave me an anonymous middle-management look. Strangers often stopped me, demanding to know where the bathrooms were.
For four days I rode this rickety motorcycle along the north shore of Jamaica, trailed by a sputtering plume of blue smoke, a sight that never impressed the guards who stood at the entrance of each five-star resort. At these guarded compounds-each one a jungle fantasy of crashing waterfalls, rainbow-colored drinks, and party-size whirlpools-guests pay a package price that includes everything except the Alka-Seltzer. There's no need to go elsewhere. At some resorts, guests are actually warned not to leave the premises. That's the irony of the tourist industry. People pay $3,000 to be isolated from the country they came to visit.
In these compounds, inhibitions are shed right along with the sweaters, encouraged by resorts with names like Hedonism II, where young Republicans pass joints to the young Democrats in the whirlpool-and everybody is inhaling. As a travel writer, you need to brace yourself for some truly extraordinary sights at these all-inclusive resorts, such as naked people playing tennis.
Playing tennis, especially while naked, is hardly an accurate depiction of everyday life in Jamaica. Learning about the realities of this island usually comes as a crash course for anybody who leaves the compound or steps off the tourist bus. In Ochos Rios, cruise ship passengers who decide to explore on foot are met by every charity case on the North Shore-the deformed, the blind, the cripples, the prostitutes, the hustlers and con men who make it a business to greet every ship of fools that drops an anchor. If the tourists make it as far as the street, they are pursued by taxis, whose drivers shout out the window with a ringing laugh.
“Where you goin’ man?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Hop in, I take you dare.”
White people--even those with nice tans--must come to terms with the role that color has played in the island's destitution. I had never felt particularly liable for the crimes of my ancestors until one day when visiting the Slave Museum at Port Royal. At a display case full of rusty chains and shackles, I listened to a Jamaican describe the leg irons to his son.
“De White Man, he do this to us, he put us in these chains,” he said angrily, as if he were still wearing them.
His young son, eyes wide with fright, stared directly at me, as if I still had the keys.
My guilt puts me at odds with resorts that romanticize the days of slavery, like the Jamaica Palace Hotel outside of Port Antonio, a white neo-classical mansion modeled after a sugar plantation.
“We wanted to recreate the colonial look,” the manager told me as we strolled through the marble lobby. How do they manage that, I wondered. Put flogging poles out in back? Have the staff shuffle around in leg irons?
One morning, I sat for breakfast in a small restaurant in Gustavia.
“You want Iron Shoes?” asked the waiter.
Iron shoes? It was probably a traditional slave breakfast. I wondered what was in it as I glanced down at the breakfast menu. Ackee, a tree vegetable, was the featured specialty. Enjoy it while you are here, read the menu, as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has placed a ban on ackees in all forms (canned, cooked, or frozen) from entering U.S. ports. Now that sounded like a real seal of endorsement.
“I’ve never heard of Iron Shoes,” I said. “Do you put Ackee in it?”
“You don’t know what Iron Shoes is?” he replied, “Where you from, Mars?”
“California, actually,” I said. “We never had slavery there.”
He rolled his eyes back in disbelief, then shook his head.
“Iron shoes, man. You pick de ironge from de tree and squeeze it to make de joos.”
“Oh, orange juice,” I said. “Never mind. I’ll stick with water.”
“I’d like a window seat,” I said to the attendant at the TransJamaica Air counter in Montego Bay.
“They’re all window seats,” she replied.
The Briton Norman Islander was built to hold eight passengers. Ours held nine. At the last moment, a huge woman wedged into the co-pilot’s seat, her fat knees just inches from the steering column, her flabby arms embracing a basket of codfish wrapped in newspaper. I sat behind the pilot. In the seats directly behind me were two Rastafarians with glazed faces who gave new meaning to the term red-eye flight.
It’s hard not to be a back seat flyer while staring over the pilot’s shoulder. As we hurtled down the runway, I wanted to ask why the autopilot had a sticker over the screen, “Not in Use.” And why did the fuel gauge read only ten gallons? As we disappeared into the thick fog shrouding the Blue Mountains, I especially wanted to know why the altimeter only read 800 meters when the mountains ahead of us rose to over 2,000 meters.
The flight only lasted 38 minutes, but the final approach was rough. As we broke out of the fog and swooped down over Kingston, the plane began to buck and drop violently in the thermals. The big lady in front began to panic. While the plane lurched and rolled, her hammy legs slammed around the cockpit, threatening any number of levers and dials, while her hands searched for something to hang onto, leaving the basket of fish perilously close to spilling.
“Don’t touch anything!” yelled the pilot.
Now is the time to pray, I figured...but what? With cod as my copilot? The Rastafarians in back were equally alarmed, and began to shout at the pilot.
“Why dis plane bounce, man. Can’t you fly de plane.”
The pilot didn’t say anything, but I could see his neck clench with tension.
“Was wrong wi’da plane, man. You gonna make us crash.”
The pilot still didn't say a word. His hands jerked at the wheel, trying to correct for each violet lurch as the runway loomed in the window. We came down hard on two wheels, bounced up at a terrifying angle, then came down again on all three.
The pilot was the first person out of the plane. He yanked off his fingerless gloves, and threw them down on the tarmac.
“This was a good flight!” he screamed at his tormentors. “You can’t judge a flight by the last two minutes.”
“You can if it crashes,” said one of the Rastafarians. “You almost kill us all, man.”
I stepped out of the plane and saw weeds growing up through the carcass of a DC3. Dammit. Wrong airport. With my plane to Antigua taking off in less than an hour from the other side of Kingston, I jumped into the first taxi I saw.
“We might make it,” said the taxi driver. “Roll up de window.”
“But it’s 90 degrees outside.”
“We go through Trenchtown, man. And lock your door too.”
For 30 minutes we cleaved through a teeming mass of poverty-stricken humanity in western Kingston's shantytown. I sat stone-faced in the front seat, visualizing green lights.
An hour later, I was 15,000 feet high, in an air-conditioned fuselage streaking towards Antigua. I always enjoyed these brief airborne interludes from the real world, which allowed me to pursue more leisurely activities; in this case, engaging in an armrest war with the tourist next to me, and pondering the message the airlines insist on posting on the back of every seat. Fasten Seat Belt While Seated. Do they really think we're so stupid that we’ll fasten them while still standing? Out my window, the islands below looked like a vision of perfection, planet earth at its most sublime, a world without poverty or crime or naked people playing tennis.
The resort industry survives on just this sort of illusion-the perfect beach, the endless summer, beautiful people-and many hotels feel it is the travel writer’s duty to sustain this fantasy, even if it’s not grounded in reality. At Jumby Bay, a private islet off Antigua, guests pay some of the highest resort prices in the world in order to stay at a hotel with no pool and no room service. You can’t even watch any adult movies on pay TV.
“People come here to relax,” said the sales manager. “That’s why we allow no distractions from the outside world, no radios, no clocks, no phones.”
“What’d you say?’ I yelled, as a big jumbo jet roared low overhead, having just taken off from the Antigua airport. “Something about no distractions from the outside world?’
I was lucky to get a brochure before they rushed me to the boat.
Sometimes travel writers get invitations to stay at a hotel for free-getting comped, we call it. I stay away from them as much as possible, mostly because I can't afford the price of a free room. My first night in Antigua, I was comped at a five-star resort for the rich and famous. A fruit basket, a bottle of rum, and a welcome note from the manager awaited me in my room. Within minutes, the phone rang.
“Sir, shall I make a dinner reservation for you this evening?” asked the concierge in a stiff British accent.
“Yeah,” I replied, “A table for one at Taco Bell.”
At resorts like these, I could easily blow my week’s budget on dinner alone. On top of that, there is the unspoken understanding that you are going to gush sweet compliments about the place, which is at cross-purposes with what I’m paid to do.
When I checked out of the hotel the next morning, the general manager came out to bid me farewell.
“Thank you for staying with us,” he said. “And so we can be of better service on your next visit, you should know that we keep detailed guest histories on our computer.”
“Oh great,” I said. I knew how mine would read. Charles Kulander, Room 212: swipes all the toiletries, leaves fast food wrappers in the bathroom, one face cloth missing, empty rum bottle found under bed.
As the 737 streaked towards Trinidad, the cabin steward moved down the aisle spraying us with a poisonous disinfectant as nonchalantly as if it were a can of Glade.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “It only affects insects.”
Five minutes later, the tip of my tongue went numb, and I thought of Franz Kafka.
My sanity suffered even more once I landed in Trinidad, for it was the eve of Carnival, a wild bacchanal in which I was an unwilling participant.
After finding the cheapest place to stay-a small prison-like guest house in an East Indian barrio-I hopped a bus for the ten-mile trip into Port of Spain. I didn’t have much work there, just six hotels to review. I'd have some time left over to watch the beginning of Carnival.
As evening fell, I followed the streams of people heading from all directions to the Calypso competition at Queens Park Savannah. After Black Stalin beat out Sparrow for the crown, the spirited crowd spilled onto the street, which is when I noticed there wasn’t a taxi in sight. No getting out of here. Not tonight. A knife fight suddenly broke out next to me, as people pushed me out of the way, screaming, “Watch out for the white man.” So much for being inconspicuous.
I decided to lose myself for a while at one of the gambling stands where you could bet a Trinidad dollar on one of the barnyard animals painted on a roulette wheel. I put my money on the pig. And won. I put my money on the chicken. And won. I even put it on the zebra, knowing that this wasn’t even a barnyard animal, and still I won. I was on the biggest roll of my life, and with 30 Trinidad dollars to the greenback, I was drowning in paper money.
This was when people started asking me for financial loans and cash dividends to be invested in the nearby rum market. This was just too much conspicuous wealth. I couldn't even stuff it all in my pockets. I’d have to walk around all night with two giant fistfuls of money. I had to get rid of it. The easiest way to redistribute the wealth would be to keep playing, knowing that sooner or later I had to lose, which I began doing-quite successfully.
Unfortunately, I took everybody down with me. Inspired by the confidence I showed in laying down giant stacks of money, everybody threw their cash on top of mine, giant piles of worn, faded bills, all of it going to the dealer time and time again till my winnings, and theirs, were completely gone. The bankrupt crowd glared at me. If looks could kill, I knew how my eulogy would read: Here Lies the Man Who Stole Carnival.
This was when I began to drink. Every 50 yards, somebody was selling beer from iceboxes, which was how I measured my progress as I wandered down the street. Three in the morning and still no taxis. Everywhere, steel bands were playing from the back of flat bed trailers while singers rapped out commands through speakers the size of NASA satellite dishes.
“Jump up an’ wave. Jump an’ misbehave.”
This was J’ouverte, the mud festival that would last till dawn, Carnival at its wildest. As the semis moved off down the streets, I fell in behind one truck and tried to get into the spirit of it all. Before I knew it, my Permopress disguise went by the wayside, releasing my true animal spirit. After being liberally doused in buckets of gooey mud, a cardboard crest was slapped on my head. Evidently, my animal spirit was a mudhen.
The surging parade swept down the streets, setting off every car alarm in town, while the more elaborate costumes kept getting entangled in the overhead power lines. As I watched everybody writhe and gyrate with abandon, I tried to do the same, but I wasn’t on such intimate terms with my loins. Some people were Riding the Pony, a dance that involved a man wrapping his arms around a woman from behind, while both simulated the motion of riding a pony at a fast gallop. Except I never saw any ponies. I hopped my way down the street riding solo.
As dawn finally streaked the sky, all of the steel bands came together at a large city square, where each tried to outplay the others-a cacophony of calypso-while the mud-covered throng, now numbering in the thousands, broke into a frenzied finale. And there I was, after countless beers, smeared in mud, my headdress askew, trying to keep up with the frenzied hypnotic dancing, flapping my wings like a true mudhen, my mind emptied of all thoughts except for one: My plane leaves in two hours.
Sint Maarten, an hour's flight north of Trinidad, is as overdeveloped as Rush Limbaugh's ego, inflated by a Customs policy whose operating guideline can be simply stated: “It’s none of our business." Consequently, this investment-rich island is the little Switzerland of the Caribbean, wall-to-wall with restaurants, banks, resorts, fast food joints, duty-free shops, casinos, and an oversupply of time-share hotels. While making the rounds among the many hotels, a blond-haired girl called out to me.
“Hey good-lookin’. Would you like to go to breakfast?”
“Me? I’m married,” I said.
“Who cares if you’re married?” she replied, raising her eyebrows suggestively. “You got a credit card?”
“Oh, I get it,” I said. She wasn't after my body. She was after my scalp. She was a headhunter, one of the predators that prowl the sidewalks of every resort town. Her job was to lure gullible tourists to the time-share boiler room, using free breakfasts as the bait. These places are called time-share because by the time you realize that you’ve been had, you’ve already shared the rest of your life savings with some used car salesman transplanted from Toledo. The trick is to eat the free breakfast, then slide out the side door for some fresh air and just keep walking.
Obtaining a free meal now and then does help the budget, especially on an island where you can spend $3 on an orange. I'd rather not eat. In fact, not eating is the best way to save money while traveling, though slowly starving to death doesn’t figure into most people’s vacation plans. Failing that, a bread and water diet will keep a person going strong for a day or two.
Still, there comes a time when you need food. Whenever I want a cheap, nutritious meal, I search out the place where all the natives go: McDonalds. The real new world order isn't geopolitical, it's a Big Mac, large fries, and a 32-ounce coke.
I arrived in Santo Domingo with extra baggage in my belly. Constipation is an occupational hazard of the traveler. I’m convinced it’s an evolutionary holdover from our prehistoric ancestors who, when migrating through foreign ground, didn’t want to leave any trace of their passing. It had to do with survival of the species-still does, as anybody who has ridden 48 hours on a Mexican bus will attest. But enough was enough. After finding a cheap hotel near the Santo Domingo airport, I walked next door to the farmacia. In my rusty Spanish, I said something roughly equivalent to, “I am under incredible pressure from my lower self to relieve the stress that results from taking in more than from what comes out in the end.”
“Ah, si, quieres Ex-lax," said the pharmacist, who was quite astute for being only 12 years old.
Not having much experience with laxatives, I ate one tablet and relaxed for ten minutes in my hotel room. Nothing happened. I ate another tablet, and laid down on the bed for another hour. Still nothing. So I gulped down the entire pack and went to sleep.
My wake-up call came at dawn as my intestines knotted into a pretzel. Doubled over in pain, I dropped to the floor in a fetal position, then crawled on hands and knees to the toilet, wondering if I would be the first person in history to die of an Ex-lax overdose. Why do they make it taste like chocolate candy if you aren't supposed to eat it all at once, I fumed. What's next? Cherry-flavored antibiotics? Candy-coated Kaopectate? Tutti frutti suppositories?
The poorer the country, the larger the monument. And the Dominican Republic has one of the largest, the Columbus Lighthouse, built in the shape of a giant cross that shelters the alleged remains of the great traveler himself. On weekend nights, an immense battery of high-intensity spotlights projects a crucifix into the sky, frequently causing all the other lights in Santo Domingo to go out, including the stoplights. This wouldn't hinder the traffic, though, since nobody pays any attention to them anyway-except the police.
Still recovering from my Ex-lax overdose and in desperate need of a bathroom, I was hopelessly ensnared in Santo Domingo's chaotic traffic. Suddenly, a traffic cop stepped out and waved me over.
“Hay un semaforo, senor,” he said, pointing to the stoplight.
“It’s not working,” I replied, already reaching for my wallet.
“When the stoplights are not working, you must come to a complete stop.”
Nobody else was. A constant parade of derelict cars limped by, bumping into one another like cows on a stampede. An entire family on a tiny moped wove through the traffic-going the wrong way-the smallest child perched on the handlebars like a sacrificial hood ornament.
“Follow me to the police station.”
“Can’t I pay you directly?” I asked, anxious to get to a bathroom.
“A policeman who takes money on the street is corrupt,” he said. He paused a moment. “Let’s be friends.”
We shook hands and exchanged names, and he showed me a photo of his family.
“Carlos, what is money between friends?” he asked.
“Usually a catastrophe,” I said. I gave him a $5 bill and he let me go after giving me a hearty handshake.
A block later, the same policeman came up behind me on his motorcycle and flagged me to the side. My God, I thought, do I have to pay this guy by the block?
“Carlos, you look lost, and friends must help each other. Where are you going?”
“El Embajador Hotel,” I said.
“Sigame,” he said, as he turned on the red flashing light. Blowing his whistle and motioning wildly with his hands, he cleared a path through the stalled traffic while I followed behind somewhat self-consciously, trying hard not to look like a DEA agent. What a country. Where else can you buy friends like this for $5, and get a private motorcade to boot?
The Hotel El Embajador was Dictator Trujillo's glittering showplace of the 1950s. Now it looked like a container ship stranded in the backwater of time. Despite the Chippendale and chandeliers, a mildew smell permeated the lobby. I went to the restaurant, and noticed the same stench. The guest rooms smelled like wet athletic socks. As I was writing up notes in my car-bring noseplugs-the odor kept haunting me. I decided to investigate further. Eventually I found its source. It was the shirt I was wearing.
Laundromats are hard to find in most Third-World countries, and usually cost more than my clothes are worth. Whenever my threads get too dirty, I shed them and buy new ones. El Conde street in Santo Domingo's historic district turned out to be one of the Caribbean’s great outlets for imitation designer clothes. I spent eight bucks for an Yves St. Laurent shirt with epaulets, and another six bucks for a pair of Girbaud pants with more pleats than a window curtain. A pair of ersatz Ray Bans completed my wardrobe, just in time for my next island hop to St. Barts, the fashion capital of the Caribbean. Fake designer clothes. Tres chic.
On Spanish-speaking islands, food and lodging are cheap and plentiful, on English-speaking ones you pay a bit more, but the French ones are by far the most expensive. What you pay for is largely an attitude and yellow sauce on your food. This trip was starting to wear on me. To keep going, I needed almost hourly infusions of caffeine. In a little sidewalk cafe in Marigot, I ordered a cup of coffee that cost as much as my quarterly life insurance premium, but all I received were a few drops of brown syrup in the bottom of a plastic cup the size of a sewing thimble.
“I’m confused,” I said. “Do I put this on my tongue, or just rub it on my skin?” The fashionable cafe crowd looked at me as if I had a sign around my neck, “Homo americanus.”
I drove the steep narrow roads of St. Barts at breakneck speed in a rented a jeep with a broken windshield and a spring sticking up in the driver’s seat that quickly put a tiny hole in my new Girbaud pants. I had ten hours to review 20 hotels before catching a flight back to St. Maarten. Flying in and out is the only way to visit St. Barts without spending the night, as the ferry only runs in one direction once a day. In this way, the island weeds out ordinary people from among the rich and famous.
At the most expensive hotel on the island, the Taiwana, they don't even publish their rates. When I insisted on knowing what it cost to stay there, the exasperated owner said, “One thousand dollars a night to start. Would you like a room?”
This drew a giggle from his bronzed guests lounging around the pool.
“One thousand bucks for one night,” I said. “About what it takes to keep a Haitian family alive for five years.”
He rolled his eyes, and dismissed me with a wave of his hand while letting loose with a mouth fart, a uniquely European habit in which a pocket of air bursts up from the lower lip, a contemptuous gesture often accompanied by a theatric closing of the eyes, a facial drama meant to convey a subtle existential message: You're dog shit.
When I turned to leave, the oiled people around the pool erupted in laughter. I stormed out of there, my pants flapping in the breeze. They didn't know it, but the Red Brigade just found a new recruit.
At the hotel next door, the receptionist asked me in that charmingly blunt way of the French, “Monsieur, you have had an accident with your pants?”
“Just a little rip,” I said, but as I reached back to check the seat of my pants, there was just bare flesh. My Girbauds had ripped from the belt loop all the way down to the back of my knee and I hadn’t even noticed. So that’s what people have been laughing at. On an island where the women brazenly expose their breasts, my thigh seemed to be getting all the attention.
Travel fatigue had definitely set in, my body numb of senses yet moving one step ahead of an overactive mind. I should have recognized the first symptoms that morning at the St. Maarten airport. Whenever I had flashed a big smile, people recoiled in horror. Little children ran to their parents. Perplexed, I went into a bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My teeth and gums were colored inky red from sucking on a pen already weakened by so much high altitude flying. Leaking pens are another occupational hazard of the travel writer. My wife is always threatening to buy me a pocket protector. What I really needed was a pocket protector for my mouth.
The last hotel on St. Barts I reviewed while making a new fashion statement: bare-chested, with an Yves St. Laurent shirt looped around my Girbauds, revealing just a flash of lower thigh-the deconstructed look. This is when I formulated my latest travel rule: Never look back, somebody’s laughing at you.
I arrived in Kingston on a midnight flight-the last leg of my trip-and went straight to the Indies Hotel.
“One room, yes,” said the night-shift receptionist. “But you have to pay cash, and leave before 6 a.m. “ A carpenter was coming to put a new door on.
“Come on,” I said. “On a Sunday morning?” He shrugged his shoulders, and checked me in on my Mastercard.
Scamming is the most popular pastime in Kingston, explained a man who invited himself to eat breakfast with me the next morning. He warned me about strangers who appeared to be friends. After half an hour of pleasant conversation, he wanted to know if I wanted to make some quick money. “You look like a smart man,” he said.
Now I knew he was scamming. After inspecting 180 hotels in ten days, I didn’t look very smart. I looked like a travel-crazed idiot, an addict warped on speed, a travel junkie who dreamed of hotel bathrooms in his sleep.
But I was almost done. Only five more hotels to review and it would be time to go home. I stepped out into the street, and brushed past the group of touts who have set up a cottage industry in front of the Indies Hotel, dedicated to the fleecing of tourists. I turned the corner down a long boulevard, and paused. Not a soul in sight.
Lapse of judgment is the final stage of travel fatigue. I’ve learned the hard way never to walk down empty city streets (Filling out police reports is the less glamorous side of travel writing). Oh, big deal, I told myself. It’s Sunday. Nothing bad happens on a Sunday.
I strode off purposely down the empty boulevard. About halfway-just when I thought I was home free-a huge man peddled up behind me and jumped off his bike. He held it over his head, then threw it to the ground with enough force to gain my immediate attention.
“Gimme your money,” he said. “Take your wallet out, dat one dare." He pointed not to my wallet but to the secret money pouch I wore inside my pants. This guy had job experience.
“Are you robbing me?” I asked.
“No, I'm not robb’n you,” he yelled. “Just give me your money and I won’t mess you up.”
“Don't bother,” I said. “I'm already messed up.”
One of his bulging biceps was wrapped in a bloody bandage held together with duct tape. What the hell. I reached in my pocket, and gave him some loose change.
“Dis aint shit, man,” he said, throwing it to the ground.
He had a point. I had forgotten how worthless coins were in Jamaica. I had just given him the equivalent of two-and-a-half cents.
Does God have a sense of humor? Right in front of us stood the Ministry of Tourism, its doors padlocked, the glass windows plastered with travel posters. “Jamaica. Come Experience the Warmth of our People.” This guy wasn't just warm, he was boiling over and frothing at the mouth.
I fished out 30 Jamaican dollars from my pocket, the price of a Red Stripe. “Here, buy yourself a beer and cool out,” I said.
Then I turned and walked off at a fast pace. He stared at the money, then measured my resolve, which he apparently miscalculated. Given that bloody wound on his arm, I was good for at least another $5.
A cab suddenly turned the corner, and I flagged it down.
“Where is everybody?” I asked the driver .
“All the folk be in church,” he said. “Only hustlers and fools be out on the street,”
“And which are you?” I asked.
He laughed without answering. Then asked if he could make a detour to stop at the Bob Marley monument.
“I have to meditate on my man here,” he said. He sat down in a cross-legged position, closed his eyes, and hummed a reggae tune for ten minutes while I waited impatiently in the front seat. Then he charged me for a sightseeing tour of Kingston. Like he said, only hustlers and fools.
From the veranda of the Ocean View, I can see an Air Jamaica 737 landing, tail heavy with tourists. I'll be taking that plane home in another two hours. It’s been a long 240 hours away from my family. I sometimes imagine that I am not actually traveling so much as running in place, just trying to keep up with a world that is spinning under my feet.
There are, however, aspects of travel I do enjoy, such as the assimilation of varied cultural traits I pick up along the way. On the flight over from Kingston, I talked with a couple who were just returning from a week at Sandals, a couples-only resort, about our respective trips. “But what you do isn’t really traveling,” said Mr. Banana Republic, smugly smiling to his wife. “You never really stay long enough to know a place, do you?”
I rolled my eyes back, waved my hand dismissively, and let a pocket of air burst up from my lower lip.
Charles Kulander is a former managing editor of the Mexico City News and Baja California magazine, and he is now a Utah-based freelance travel writer, and a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. His work has been published widely in newspapers, magazines, and books, including the Travelers’ Tales anthology, It's a Dog’s World. He is the author of West Mexico: From Sea to Sierra. "Tres Cheap: A Travel Writer Storms the Caribbean" won the Funny Travel Gold Award in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
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