Montego Bay, Jamaica (Feb. 14, 2009)

Jamaica is packed with new experiences, even on a Valentine’s Day weekend in Montego Bay. Before visiting this island of only 2.8 million people, Jamaica to me symbolized lazy, pot-smoking people singing Reggae music. Now my image of Jamaicans is that of a happy, super-friendly and responsible people. They live life at a slow pace, which makes it possible to enjoy it more fully.

        Yes, crime rates are high in Jamaica and at one time, this little Island led the world in homicide rates. But this crime blight has been exported from Haiti, Mexico and other centers of power in the illegal drug industry. The original Island natives were peaceful and friendly. They were happy until the Europeans landed, made them slaves, and imported thousands more slaves from Africa.

        Our tour guide confirmed that Jamaica’s crime problem resulted from an excess of guns in Haiti, only 100 miles away, and the drug cartels vying for power. She said “even the bad guys committing these crimes have sweet and friendly sides. One self is sweet and the other sour.”

        During our brief visit to Jamaica, the local papers were headlining the visit of China’s VP announcing loans and grants of $140 million to Jamaica. It struck me as so full of ramifications that I wrote a story about it in my Context Magazine blog.



The Jamaican national bird is the Doctor Bird, a Green-and-black Streamertail hummingbird. Apparently, doctors in Jamaica wore two-tailed coats in the old days. High in the mountains above Montego Bay is the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary. In fact, it is just the backyard of a cottage,  the home of an elderly woman, who until 8 years ago when she passed away, did little but train hummingbirds to drink sugar water out of a tiny bottle held by one hand, while the bird perched on her other hand. Legend has it that it took her 6 years to get the birds to drink from her hands, first in the jungle and then on her back porch. Hundreds of hummingbirds still feed in this fashion, as you can see of this photo of Nancy’s hand.



Not only do Streamertails drink out of a visitor’s hand-held bottle, but the Mango Hummingbird does also, though it won’t perch on your hand. The bright green hummingbirds in the photos are Streamertails but the ones with a smattering of red, blue, orange and silver colors are Mango Hummingbirds.

        The National Tree is bears fruit that looks like a nectarine but the trees grow 50 feet tall. Called the Ackee fruit, the tall trees with tempting fruit can be seen in the jungle, in people’s yards, and in the adjacent photo.


The City of Montego Bay with about 90,000 people, plus a few thousand tourists, is a study in social and geographic diversity. With pristine beaches and a large harbor for cruise ships, the center of Montego Bay is a long stretch of waterfront served by Gloucester Ave affectionately called the “Hip Strip.” The Strip and the beaches, totally surrounded by small mountains, are sprinkled with the houses of both rich and poor.




Atop the closest mountain to the Strip is a 300 year-old sugar cane plantation mansion, now the Richmond Hill Inn. The lavish original furniture remains, as do other trappings of the era of slavery. The photo shows this atmosphere.


Down in the valley where the Hip Strip ends at the City hall is the famous Sam Sharpe Square. Sam was a Baptist pastor hung in 1832 for organizing a slave rebellion. The hanging, with other slaves, took place in the public square. The harshness of their punishment led to a backlash that resulted in the British abolition of slavery 2 years later. The public square with statues (see photo) of the rebellious slaves remains as a memorial to Sam Sharpe and his followers.  



Hip Strip used to be lined with popular hotels for visiting tourists. Now the hotels stand in disarray, having been replaced by new resort hotels on the beach in the 10 miles east of the City. Catering mostly to Americans, these hotels segregate tourists from the local Jamaicans even more than 20 years ago.




It has become popular for people from the USA and Canada to get married on the beach in Jamaica. We watched two such weddings from our balcony. The most interesting feature we observed was a butterfly-releasing event. After the couple said their vows, the bridegroom held a box that the bride opened, releasing dozens of butterflies to freedom. I happened to have my camera handy, capturing this remarkable event.      



Butterflies symbolize renewal, beauty and new beginnings, but they cost about $10 each. It was a beautiful embellishment to a scenic, peaceful ocean shore. An extra strong wind carried the butterflies quickly away to new homes.


As both Nancy and I had been working hard the week before, we spent most of our time relaxing with naps and quiet walks by the shore. Our hotel was in the Rose Hall area and had a long water slide, which I found to be a lot of fun. Nancy and I also took the “lazy river” glide, which is a lot like tubing on the Rum River except the water was clean and light waterfalls splashed from rock formations above.


We saw only a small piece of Jamaica. Perhaps someday we’ll get to go back and enjoy more of it.