In Search of the Real Jamaican Experience in a Rum Shack in Montego Bay, Jamaica
photos, music curation and story by Hannah Baker
The first thought I had was that no one would find my body. The second: I’d create an international incident. The third? RUN.
I booked my trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica on a whim only three weeks earlier. Though the booming tourist spot had a reputation for its pristine white sand resort beaches, my friend Shayna and I were looking for a different kind of tropical getaway. We wanted to get to know the real Jamaica, though I never expected it would have led me to the edge pitch black cliff, truly believing my life was about to end. But more on that later. We chose to stay at an Airbnb fifteen minutes outside the city, with a Rastafarian man named Billy who offered to pick us up at the airport.
When he did, we climbed into the back of his Jeep and were met with two huge speakers fastened into the truck, propped facing the seats. He blared reggae, boasting of Jamaica's wild party scene. Speeding through the main tourist road of Montego Bay, dubbed the Hip Strip, he pointed out the nicest bars, beaches, and restaurants we should try.
"You like reggae?" He asked. Before we could answer he turned the volume up even louder.
I could feel the car vibrating with each beat, and developed a sudden, splitting headache. I sent a shocked glance over to Shayna, who was laughing and enjoying the music much more than I was.
The shine of the tourist district faded quickly once we passed the Hip Strip, and it became apparent that Montego Bay, and most likely a majority of the country, heavily relied on the international tourism.
We slowed to a crawl on a congested highway, where street vendors stood hunched on the sides in overgrown grass waiting for a chance to sell their goods through an open window. They held out sugarcane, fruit, and even cooked shrimp, but Billy waved them away each time. Every once in a while Shayna tapped my arm to discreetly point out a somewhat concerning landmarks: an abandoned building, flyers about the need for gun control, jay walkers dancing through traffic.
Plane Ticket (NY-Jamaica): $440USD
AirBnb: $30USD a night
Buses: $1USD each way
Taxi: $10USD each trip within the city
Dunn’s River Falls: $20USD admission
Resort Day Pass: $6USD
Meals: $6 - $8USD in restaurants outside the Hip Strip
Drinks: $1-$2USD each outside the Hip Strip
TOTAL FOR 5 DAYS, 4 NIGHTS: $650USD
A Brief History of Jamaica
Photograph by Algernon E Aspinall. Image on postcard posted in Retreat, Jamaica 1922/ Flickr Brodnax Moore
Over 2,500 years ago, Taino Indians (like the natives of Puerto Rico) named the island Xaymaca, which meant “land of wood and water”.
1494 - "Discovered" by Christopher Columbus, mostly used as a ship port.
1655 - Colonized by the British to grow sugar, tobacco, indigo and cocoa. To supplant this labor? Slaves from Africa. The slave trade meant $$$. You may recall learning about the ‘Middle Passage’?
1808- The Abolition Bill was passed and the trade of slaves was declared to be “utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful”.
1890 -Jamaica turns into a huge tourist spot after hotels are built for the Jamaica International Exhibition.
1962- Jamaica was granted its independence from England.
Read more here.
When we reached our neighborhood, our host turned sharply down an isolated dirt road that lead up to a small mountain. He smiled and called out greetings to the people standing around by the sides of the roads.
Chunks of oxtail sautéed with vegetables and spices, served over rice and beans. This is super filling!
Goat simmered in a creamy blend of spices, served with potatoes over rice and beans. If you can’t handle heat, don’t worry! It’s not spicy.
Chicken rubbed with a blend of Jamaican spices before cooking. You can find jerk meat of any kind, but chicken seems to be the most popular.
Pronounced with an emphasis on the last syllable (fest-ih- VALL) This is crisp, slightly sweet fried dough.
A seafood soup made with conch and vegetables, such as corn, potatoes, yams, and carrots.
Puffy bread that’s lightly sweetened with coconut milk and maybe some coconut flakes.
Milk made from peanuts (no dairy involved), sold in cartons at groceries or convenient stores. It tastes like a peanut butter milkshake!
Skip the overpriced bars in the Hip Strip and hit up a grocery store. You’ll find a bigger selection of alcohol for way cheaper. Think: bottles of creamed and spiced rum for the equivalent of $2 USD.
Pictured on the right: Stewed beans and fish served with fried dough, plantains, and cabbage.
As we approached the mountain, the road turned to a steep incline, suddenly darkened by dense vegetation on either side. Though I was slightly surprised the car could handle the vertical (and didn't just roll backwards) I enjoyed the view I could make out between pockets of space in the trees. Past the steep drop off at the edge of the road was an expanse of turquoise blue sea.
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.
"That chicken!" The host yelled, to no one in particular. He turned to us. "I don't know where that chicken is. But when I find him, I'm going to eat him." He chuckled and picked at the padlock on a grate that served as our door.
"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.
Later that night we trekked higher up the mountain road to the rum shack, aptly named for the flimsy pieces of wood that held together a makeshift bar. The road sloped severely. 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. 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.
Unsure of where to stand, 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 boardshorts. 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 upside down bucket. “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, I noticed a jagged hole in the plywood floor that led to sloped ground about three feet below us. I scooted my seat away from it, not sure whether I’d fall through the floor and tumble down the hill below us.
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. They spoke quickly and loudly to each other in a way I didn’t understand. They said “me” when I would have used “I” and I couldn’t differentiate verb tenses. Most of their words weren’t even recognizable. Later, when I presented Billy with my notebook filled with new words I heard, he’d laugh and say:
“We speak English at resorts, but here, we speak Patois. It’s like lazy English.”
Though English is Jamaica’s official language, over three million people speak Patois (pronounced “Patwa”). This spoken creole is native to the country, with influences from English, Spanish, and numerous West African languages. Like most creoles, Patois formed out of necessity when speakers of multiple languages were colonized and forced to live together. Just like Jamaica has Patois, Haiti has Haitian Creole, and Cuba has Lucumí. All three are heavily influenced by the language in power during its colonization, with snippets of other ones that were oppressed.
Today, mainstream culture in the U.S. has had a taste of Patois, thanks to Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay” and “Work.” Big up, respect! (Well done!)
How are you? – Wah Gwaan?
What are you doing? – Wha yu de pon?
I’ll be right there. – Mi soon come.
Do you understand me? – Yu ze mi?
I don’t care – Mi no response.
He’d stretch his hands out to his wingspan and clap them together, illustrating how they transform a whole sentence into a word.
But in the moment at the rum shack, 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.
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.
Hits grew louder as players picked up the pace, and I relaxed slightly knowing I didn’t cost my new friend the entire game in one, swift move. Every once in awhile Delroy nudged me, allowing me to choose a tile from his hand to play. It emboldened me to ask more questions, to not feel so woefully out of place in a neighborhood where I certainly looked it.
Slowly, the mountain we were on didn’t feel as dark or far away as it had before.
The next morning, Shayna and I turned down Delroy’s offer to drive us into town before his shift in order to attempt to maneuver the city’s bus system. Nearly everyone in the neighborhood worked in the resorts, so we followed those heading to work. We walked single file down the narrow road 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.
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 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’re not that far, just a few more twists and turns!”
Shayna yelled. She sprinted up to round the first bend, but as soon as she disappeared around it she reappeared again. This time facing me.
A car was barreling down the road.
The turn prevented us from seeing its headlights, but we heard the low rumble of its engine. Shayna reached out and grabbed my arms as if to spin me downhill, but we were too high up to run back to the safety of the bus stop. We scanned around for anything that might lead us to safety.
There was the road, and the drop off. And for a split-second, with our feet balanced precariously on the edge of the road,
I hated myself for not turning back when I felt something was wrong.
I hated Shayna for suggesting we visit Jamaica in the first place.
I could hear her rapid-firing curses under her breath as the glow of headlights radiated from behind the turn.
In a flash the two lights blinded us.
That’s when I thought it: No one will find my body.
I couldn’t even see where the cliff ended, but saw that it was littered with rocks and roots. It’ll be an international incident. I practically wrote the headline in my head: “Two American Girls Missing in Jamaica, Kind Airbnb Host Suffers Horrible Reviews”.
Then, the car screeched to a life-saving stop.
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, the second one to screech to a stop.
“GET IN. NOW.”
The driver screamed. 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.
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.
Hi, I'm Hannah Baker (left).
I took my first trip outside of the country when I was sixteen. I went to Israel for two weeks without a phone or Internet access and returned home sleep deprived and sick, but ecstatic. My parents barely recognized me, though that may have been due to my new hairdo. A bodyguard I met while away didn't speak much English, but was still able to convey how funny she thought it’d be to cornrow a blonde, white girl's hair.
Eventually, the braids came out, but something new stayed with me. I realized that my bodyguard travel buddy had taught me a lesson, one that I now live by: Language barriers don’t stop people from connecting. In fact, they may be a point for bonding. Humans are basically universal – they feel, want, and need the same things no matter where they are, though how they express that may differ with speech. But that’s only a minor detail, really.
Since that trip, I’ve lived in Spain and Peru, and have traveled to ten different countries (and counting), eager to learn about each language spoken there. For me, it’s the first step, if not the most important one, to connecting on something bigger.