OFF THE STRIP AND INTO A RUM SHACK IN MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA

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This is the first immersive article in this series. In order to fully experience this article, please plug in your headphones and click play every time you see the following PLAY button below. 

*Feature would be to press play ONCE and it would control the sound + music for the whole article

"YOU LIKE     REGGAE?"

HE ASKED.

Before we could answer, he turned the volume up even louder. Two huge speakers were fastened into the back of the truck, propped facing the seats. I could feel the truck vibrating with each beat. Outside, we sped past Montego Bay's souvenir laden "Hip Strip" main street. This would be the closest to a typical tourist trip. Shayna and I had opted for an off the grid adventure. We hoped this wasn't the wrong decision. 

 

 

We watched as the tourist laden shops slowly made way for abandoned buildings, flyers about gun control and street vendors standing hunched alongside overgrown grass on the sides of the road to sell sugarcane, fruit, and even cooked shrimp to passer bys.

As we approached the mountain, the road turned to a steep incline, suddenly darkened by dense vegetation on either side. Past the steep drop off at the edge of the road was an expanse of turquoise blue sea.

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After a few hairpin turns, we reached our new home, delicately perched on a hilly space. As Billy led us to our room's entrance, I gawked at the size of the spiders that clung to the webs strung above me. Shayna cooed at group of small, hungry kittens nearby. A chicken clucked in the distance.

"Where's the party tonight?" He asked. "I take you downtown. Only $10." We hesitated. We had avoided a resort in order to get away from the vacationer-clubbing scene, and were reluctant to pay for a shuttle service back into it.

"No thanks," Shayna responded. "We don't want that."

"Aha!" He laughed. "You want the real Jamaican experience. Okay." He clapped his hands. "Up the road is a rum shack. You like rum?" We nodded. "Very good. You tell them you're Billy's friends." He flashed a smile and headed out of the room.

 

That night we trekked up the mountain road to the rum shack, aptly named for the flimsy pieces of wood that held together a makeshift bar. The road there sloped so severely that I powered each step by pushing a hand down on the working thigh. After the five minute walk, I was red-faced and winded, panting in the dim glow of the fluorescent lights that broke through the darkness around us.

<Describe the rum shack, it's essence>

A short woman stood behind the counter in silence, unimpressed with us as her new customers. She splashed rum into plastic cups and left them on the counter for us to take.

<Describe the inside of the rum shack, and it's environment, as well as the men, about their character and personality, not just their clothes or what their clothes tell us about them. >

We shuffled to the left of the bar where two men sat on plywood benches, staring at us in silence. They wore polo shirts and board shorts. My anxiety heightened. Had we interrupted something? I desperately wanted to leave, but my limited knowledge of good etiquette left me unable to do so with an unfinished drink.

“You’re Billy’s friends.” One said finally, breaking the silence. We nodded eagerly, and let out a nervous laugh.

 

“COME, SIT". HE GESTURED TO AN OVERTURNED BUCKET

 

PATOIS

“I’m Delroy. I live over there.” He pointed to a house across from the rum shack, with grates over the window and an old, white car in the driveway. “I’m a taxi driver. You tell me if you need a driver.”

We shook hands before taking our upside-down bucket seats. Delroy shifted to set up a small, folding table. Behind me, a hole in the plywood floor led to a three feet darkness. 

More neighbors trickled in, nodding their heads at us as Delroy introduced us: a lanky teenager in jeans, a woman with a head full of curlers, and another with a shiny wig.

<more details about these people>

Most of their words weren’t even recognizable.

 “We speak English at resorts, but here, we speak Patois. It’s like lazy English.” He’d stretch his hands out to his wingspan and clap them together, illustrating how they transform a whole sentence into a word.

PATOIS (patwa)

Though English is Jamaica’s official language, over three million people speak Patois. This spoken creole is native to the country, with influences from English, Spanish, and numerous West African languages. < AUDIO>

Shayna and I sat wide-eyed and lost, unable to follow basic conversation. The neighbors filled in the seats around the table, unpacking a set of dominoes. With precise speed they shuffled the pieces and dealt them out to each other face-down.

 “You play?” Delroy asked. I shook my head, and he skipped over me. Using two hands, he lifted his dominoes up from the table ever so slightly, peeking at the number underneath.

 

           

A deafening crack sliced through the air as he slammed one piece down face up in the center of the table. It rattled us, making the woman with the curlers in her hair laugh. Shouting erupted from the players, with each one whipping a hand in the air to slam another domino down next to the one in the center. They were all connected by a similar number, building a geometric web. I stared down at the board, my eyes darting to count the numbers and figure out a pattern or clue as to the rules of the game. After a few rounds, Delroy looked to me.

“You go play.” He signaled for me to peek over at his hand. I shook my head, not wanting to lose a game for him. “You go play.” He insisted. I sheepishly took a domino and placed it down, touching the four dots on its side to the same pattern on another.

 “Not like that!” The woman with curlers shrieked. She picked up the piece and handed it back to me. “You slam it!”

With a nervous grin I hit the domino to the table to produce a modest, yet firm plunk. The game swirled on around me.

<MORE ABOUT THE GAME AND YOUR INTERACTIONS WITH THEM>

 

 

 

You probably already know all about the staples of Jamaican food - beef patties, goat curry, jerk chicken. Here are a few others you must try while there. 

PEANUT PUNCH -dairy free milk made of you guessed it, peanuts! 

FESTIVAL (pronounced Festi-VAHL)- crisp, slightly fried dough. 

COCONUT BREAD - Puffy bread that’s lightly sweetened with coconut milk and maybe some coconut flakes.

CONCH STEW - a seafood stew made with conch and vegetables.

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The next morning, Shayna and I attempted to maneuver the city’s bus system. We had learned that almost everyone else in the neighborhood worked in the resort area as well, so we followed those heading to work down the narrow road. We walked single file in order to make space for the cars speeding up and down the path, exchanging questions along the way. I asked how to say specific phrases in Patois, they asked me what snow felt like. Shayna asked where we could find breadfruit, they asked her why she was so short. We switched sides when they did, realizing they helped us avoid the blind spot of out of control cars.

FOOD

You probably already know all about the staples of Jamaican food - beef patties, goat curry, jerk chicken. Here are a few others you must try while there. 

PEANUT PUNCH -dairy free milk made of you guessed it, peanuts! 

FESTIVAL (pronounced Festi-VAHL)- crisp, slightly fried dough. 

COCONUT BREAD - Puffy bread that’s lightly sweetened with coconut milk and maybe some coconut flakes.

CONCH STEW - a seafood stew made with conch and vegetables.

 

Eventually, the ground leveled out to show the lone bus stop along a highway, where we boarded, paid, and headed into town. Once there, we parted ways with those off to serve in resorts, choosing to stay downtown for its cheaper food and free beaches.

That night, we retraced our steps to get back to our place. Standing at the foot of the same path we descended earlier, we congratulated ourselves for successfully choosing not only the correct bus, but the correct bus stop. The path felt steeper this time. It was certainly darker without the sun to light the way. An eerie silence fell over us as we trudged along and upwards. Something wasn’t right. Where was everyone? We had company on the walk down this morning, but now, we were conspicuously alone.

Still, we pressed on to steeper, darker terrain where twisted trees blocked out light, blurring the edge where the road ended and the drop of the mountain started. Despite the cool night breeze, sweat poured out of me as I powered up the mountain. Glancing up, I realized that an oncoming car would not be able to see us, and if it did, it wouldn’t be able to stop.

 

As if in sync, Shayna started racing in a panicked run, with her tiny arms and legs pumping furiously. I loped along behind her, but my less athletic build couldn’t match her speed. 

We heard the low rumble of its engine. A car was barreling down the road. 

And for a split-second, with our feet and lives balancing precariously on the edge of the road, I hated Shayna for suggesting we visit Jamaica in the first place. I could hear her rapid-firing curses under her breath in a panic as the glow of headlights radiated from behind the turn. 

High on adrenaline, Shayna and I took off again racing up the hill. This time, I found the energy to keep up with her, slick with fear-sweat, but steady with determination. It wasn’t enough. Another car swerved around a corner, and screeched to a stop.

"GET IN, NOW"

The driver shouted.

Shocked, we stared up past the headlights and saw Delroy, in his dilapidated taxi cab, leaning over to unlock the passenger side of the car. We piled in, panting and heaving on the seats. I felt my eyes roll back in relief. We were alive. We were out of danger. And we were idiots.

BUDGET BREAKDOWN

Plane Ticket: $440

AirBnb: $30 a night

Buses: $1 each way

Taxi: $10 each trip within the city

Dunn’s River Falls: $20 admission

Resort Day Pass: $6

Meals: $6 - $8 in restaurants outside the Hip Strip

Drinks: $1-$2 each outside the Hip Strip

 

TOTAL FOR 5 DAYS, 4 NIGHTS: $650

For all my uncertainty of our off-the-beaten-path trip, we had been the biggest danger to ourselves. It wasn't our room in a questionable neighborhood, or our noticeably foreign faces. It was our reckless lack of awareness as we climbed a path that no other local citizen seemed to do at night, without stopping to question why. And those same people had rescued us. 

 

 

 

 

 

chau mui