Jamaica Mistaka, 1975
Updated: Jan 4
In 1975, my friend Henry and I hitchhiked 1500 miles to Miami, then flew to Jamaica for three weeks. I found a series of black and white photos perfectly capturing that era in Negril at the dawn of mass tourism by Jamaican photographer Robin Farquharson.
"I don't like reggae...I love it." Dreadlock Holiday, 10cc
Come to Jamaica, mon. I heard a faint siren call from this tropical paradise around 1974.
A trio of friends made their way down to Miami, where they’d picked up a $99 ticket to Montego Bay (MoBay) then on to Negril, a backwater town favoured by hippies. Tales of cheap ganga, loose women, buckets of booze, white sand and blue seas- in my mind, I’m already there!
After the overall success of the Floridays adventure (see posting “Floridays”), I made a vow I kept for the next six years: I would never again spend another winter in Canada (it’s good to have goals!). Winter was brutal and I simply wasn’t cut out for it.
The local weather was turning nasty. I was a ratchet head on the line for Chrysler's in a massive factory in my hometown, building Cordobas and Valiants. All the while, visions of turquoise blue water and flour-white sand danced in my head. My stomach ached to be on that beach; the thought of another 30 years or so on the line scared the living beejesus out of me. One day, the longing for leaving was so intense, I simply walked off factory floor, punched the clock and left the factory life – forever.
The route south would follow a similar scenario (hopefully) as in my first journey south in 1973, (see posting “Floridays”) with Henry, my new travelling partner. This time, hitchhiking wasn’t quite so simple; it took three full days to reach my grandmother’s winter home in Zephyrhills. The craziest adventure on the way south featured a close encounter with the Kentucky state police.
We only managed to get as far as Dry Ridge, Kentucky on our first day of travel- just barely. Dry Ridge is not exactly a prominent tourist destination, featuring a truck stop and a couple of motels. After a night in one of the lower rent establishments, we woke up to a fresh layer of snow on the ground – exactly what we were trying to escape.
Our intention was to grab a quick bite to eat at the truck stop. The waitress was taken aback by our appearance- long hair and backpacks- and we felt some definite redneck vibrations. Instead of dining at that fine resort, we decided to walk down to the highway entrance ramp. Like to stay, but gotta go.
Bob Seger was in my head:
You feel their eyes upon you as you shake off the cold Always the same clichés, is that a woman or a man…
In the great state of Kentucky, it was illegal to hitchhike on the interstate; one can only hitch on the entrance ramp, plainly stated on a sign right in front of us. However, very few cars stop at Dry Ridge, to catch a ride from cars entering the “on ramp” in the cold was very tough. Contravening the no hitchhiking on the freeway rule, we stuck our thumb out where the ramp met the highway.
Almost immediately, we were harassed by a redneck state trooper, who pulled over, told us to get back up the ramp no “ifs, ands or but," likely tipped off from someone at the truck stop. As soon as he left, of course, we walked back down the ramp to the freeway, playing a game of cat and mouse with the Trooper.
Apparently it was slow Sunday in Dry Ridge, as Trooper Billy Bob quickly returned (all the good Christians apparently at church, while we, the heathens, had the audacity to tread on his turf). This time, he warned us we'd be thrown in jail if he caught us on the highway.
I couldn't figure the logic of the “no hitching on the freeway” rule. If he ignored us, we'd soon be long gone from his jurisdiction. Besides, we weren't bothering a soul in Dry Ridge on that cold January morning.
The third time he tried to nail us, he was across the highway, blocked by a median barrier between the four lanes. He couldn't cross the highway at that point, but instead proceeded to blare over the loudspeaker: "Stay right there, you're under arrest."
We were frozen with fear, but then Providence intervened. A car stopped up the highway, we ran as fast as we could, threw our gear into the back, all the while looking over our shoulder for the next twenty miles, finally bidding adieu to Dry Ridge rednecks.
We eventually found our way to Florida and warmer climes. After a brief stay in Zephyrhills once again with my grandmother Sarah Lee (yes that was her name) and her husband Red Roy, we hitched across the great state of Florida to Miami, then bought one of them $99 round trip tickets from MIA to Montego Bay.
The First Flight
Do you remember the first time you flew? There's something about one’s first jet ride that remains indelibly etched. As an Air Jamaica jet accelerated down the runway, I recall an incredible rush as we gained altitude; this, I thought, is a very good way to travel.
We flew over Cuba, very exotic from above, majestic mountains, tiny villages, pristine beaches. We caught a glimpse of Montego Bay as we circled past; from the perspective of a frozen Canuck, the scenery was absolutely spectacular.
When you've lived all your entire 19 years in an region as pancake flat as Essex County, Ontario, the hills of Jamaica seemed mighty exotic. Coupled with a remarkable palette of ocean blues, it was quickly apparent why Jamaica was an incredible attractive tourist magnet.
On the ground, we'd been tipped off my our friends that the Jamaican tourist board provided free welcome Rum Punch drinks, if you knew where to look. We found the booth and saddled up with three characters from Ohio, who were headed in the same way as us: the mystical hippie Negril Beach, on the extreme west coast of the island.
After knocking back several rum punches, the five of us negotiated with a cab driver to take chauffeur us to Negril. Through town to the highway (a charitable description at best), five freaks stuffed into a tiny taxi, packs and all. Through our rum punch glazed eyes, we were immediately struck by the large crowds milling in the streets. In N. America, folks don't hang out on the streets as they do in underdeveloped nations.
MoBay: the streets were alive with vendors hawking all manner of wares, women in brightly coloured clothing balancing great baskets on their heads. It was very exotic and quite heady to witness the parade flashing before our eyes past as we headed out of town. This was my first contact with Third World poverty; it was mesmerized.
Then the lushness of the jungle. Palm trees and many unnamed exotic plants seemed like paradise. We sped along the south coast road, rounding stunning bay upon bay, completely enchanted by the scenery. After more than two hours, we made Negril at sunset.
It was magical and quite surreal.
Way Off the Beaten Track
We were deposited at the infamous Negril Beach Yacht Club (NBYC). The NBYC: no yachts or moorings, at least not in 1975. It did, however, serve up some cheap tasty Banana Rum shakes, and sported one of the great terraces in the Caribbean, overlooking the famed 7-mile sands of Negril Beach.
Negril Beach, January, 1975: transforming from a winter hippy outpost to a modern tourist trap, from outpost to destination. Most of the development was at the far end of the beach from Negril town proper, beautiful low-level bungalows, "no building higher than the coconut trees, mon," said to the locals. In surrounding red clay hills, down the ocean lane to the famous caves on the western tip of the island, cheap bungalow lured a very colourful tribe.
The beach was the main attraction; a long sweep of sand that began near the NBYC, west of a shanty town, a tightly-packed enclave of cafes and dirt roads into the hills. Palm trees fringed the pink-hued sand,; you sensed it was too good to last. But as of yet, Negril hadn't been hit by the waves of modern tourism just yet.
This, Henry and I agreed, was a lifestyle we could get used to.
Little did you know at the time our troubles in paradise were about to begin.
After a exhausting day of travel, we decided to jump straight into the banana daiquiris at the Yacht Club. I hadn’t eaten much all day except for an airline meal; I recall drinking too many then embarrassingly spewing my guts out into the plant life- not a pretty sight.
Where to stay for the night? We found an idlyllic place on a point across the bay from the Yacht Club: the Cottage on the Rocks. We were met by our gracious host, brother George. He said it would be fine for us to pitch our tent for a small fee; just like that, we were going to camp next to the Caribbean! Our American friends booked rooms inside the cottage.
George's motto was: "Dey canna stop me mon!" He worked this bit into every conversation. In his retirement years, he enjoyed running his small guest house and camping place for travellers. George had sailed all over the world as a cook for His/Her Majesties’ Navy. He regaled us for hours about his adventures, his thick Caribbean English brogue captivating us.
"Mon, if all my children come to visit me, dey haffta get permission from da queen to close da road, mon. Yes sir, I tell ya true, dey canna stop me, mon.” On so on…
It was a long conversation with George that first night, but eventually, we decided to hit the rack, gently being lulled to sleep as waves gently caressed the rocks, right at our feet.
Trouble in Paradise
I was a million miles away when the sound of rustling brought me back to reality. Awoken by a disturbance, I sat straight up in the tent, I caught a shadow of a figure running out of our tent, a pup tents that could comfortably sleep three people plus gear.
I jumped out of my sleeping bag even as the silhouette disappeared into the jungle. Inside the tent, clothes were strewn about. I quickly found my wallet, which until recently held Jamaican cash. Hank and I, victims of a robbery; the brazen thief had come right into our tent.
One of the main problems with camping as a means to save money on accommodation is the very real possibility of getting ripped off. After a robbery occurs (as it did several times over the years). In this instance, I lost cash, a pair of jeans, and a custom-embroidered Levi shirt from a friend as a good luck travel charm.
Very disappointed with this turn of events, we awoke George, who was very distressed about the events. There was, however, a lot of thieving going on in Negril, as we rich white Northerners brought possessions largely unattainable by locals, especially stylish clothes.
Violent acts against travellers had become common; while in Negril, we heard many tales of other being robbed. Then, bad news from the Coconut Telegraph: an American discovered doing the deadman float in the bay, a knife in his back.
Negril was on its last legs as a charming a fishing village in '75. An influx of white hippies and voyageurs was disconcerting to the locals. The transformation from a sleepy backwater village into the next hotspot for the rich and famous was creating much resentment between capitalizing on the boom, and those who left on the outside. Sadly, we'd witness this phenomenon time after time in the upcoming years as we continued to move off the beaten track.
For the rest of our stay at George's Cottage on the Rocks, we stashed our gear inside the cottage, and had no further thieving to report.
The next day, after reporting our losses to the local constabulary, we made a vow to put this incident behind us and hit the beach.A snapshot of the next three weeks: lying on the beach, snorkeling along to the lengthy coral reef, indulging in a plethora of local delicacies.
In a nutshell, "Takin' it ease, mon."
A Slice of Paradise
Negril, despite its recent growing pains, things were generally pretty laid back. Several funky shacks served delicious local fare, including a mind-boggling lobster curry, paired with cheap Red Stripe beer. Authentic Caribbean fare was dished out shacks by the side of the road, fiery Roti and "jerk chicken, mon;" we patronized these with regularity.
Everywhere an omnipresent reggae beat. The great Reggae stars including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh et al. were gaining worldwide acclaim, phenomenal energy building around reggae music. Tiny station wagons pulled up, the driver yanked speakers from the trunk, stuck them on the roof, transforming into instant disc jockeys. Roving dj's had locals dancing in the street in no time; we often joined in on the fun.
George's Cottage on the Rocks offered access to the main coral reef that ran the length of the beach; we could snorkel right outside our tent. We often began the day with a snorkel in the sultry Caribbean through this remarkable underwater garden. I had never snorkeled before this, but was so enthralled with the underwater colours and sights that I'm sure I went everyday.
George's place was very popular among travellers. One guy who was staying at Georges was a scuba diver, and he came in with a catch of fresh lobster. That night, George cooked up a lobster curry that remains the best I’ve ever eaten, a good time had by all.
A Negril ritual took place at sunset. A motley crew of freaks, drop-outs, outcasts and reprobates waled from town to the furthest west point of the island to congregate at Rick’s Café and Sunset Bar. Symphony music would blare as this ragamuffin group of Westerners paid an almost religious homage to the sunset. We were seldom disappointed, especially since drinks were always 2 for 1 at sunset.
Near the west point, there were fantastic sea caves to explore. To reach the caves, it was necessary to grab a rope dangling from a tree over the water, get a good running start, and swing over the water like Tarzan. Then, as your momentum carried you out from the ledge, you let go and dropped about 40 feet into the water. The next step was to swim into the caves, climb the rocks, and ascend a tunnel by ladder. You emerged across the road from the cliffs, to do it all over again; this was great fun.
One day, while swimming in the caves, a strong wave charged in; I tried holding the walls to avoid being bounced about. I made the fateful mistake of putting my feet on the wall for support; my foot was racked with excruciating pain. I had stepped on a cluster of stinging barnacles, and I had to be carried out of the cave, the pain was so great.
Somehow, I hobbled back to George's cottage, and was told the best solution was to piss on my foot to ill the pain. I thought this was local mumbo jumbo, and ignored the advice. Later that night, though, as the pain intensified, I decided to forego dignity and soaked my foot in urine. Amazingly, by the next day, the pain was gone.
Life in Negril revolved around beach life during the day, non-stop partying at night. There was the delicious Appleton Rum, ridiculously cheap, as strong as 160 proof for heavyweights. Jamaica had earned a well-deserved reputation for the quality of its marijuana; much herb consumption was consumed by locals and foreigners. In fact, for the Rastafarian cult, smoking ganga was part of their religion. Not wanting to offend a country’s religious rituals, we soon become one with the Rastas.
Add in psilocybin “magic” mushrooms and the formidable sedative 714 “Mandrakes” sold over the counter. All washed down with cheap local Red Stripe or Heineken beers, rum punch. Many foreigners who were whacked out of their head.
For those so inclined, the locals baked up Ganga cake, which increased the potency of already strong marijuana by a factor of ten. Mushroom tea was served in many establishments. Marijuana was smoked almost everywhere, although not out in the open, as it remained illegal. You couldn't walk to the beach without getting asked to buy some "Herbs, mon", or "Ganga, mon," as low $25 per pound. To paraphrase Robin Williams: "If you can remember Negril Beach in the seventies, you weren't there."
Given our state of mind, it seemed too much of a bother to tour the region. I did manage to go into the mountains several times on motorcycle, and found the scenery from up high to be so incredible stunning; I was really enchanted with the island. The people in the hills seemed much more friendly than on the beach, less jaded at the sight of foreigners.
Hank, the three Americans and I thought it might be fun to head into the hills to see what life was like. We met some local characters on the beach, Rastafarians who never cut their hair, smoked tons of ganga, herded goats and raised crops in the hills (usually ganga). They invited us to their farm so we took them up on the offer. Soon we found ourselves in a splendid cottage in the green hills of Jamaica.
It was very peaceful in the mountains, and we enjoyed a side of Jamaican life completely different than the beach scene. We walked through jungle to huge fields of ganga the size of Iowa corn. I remember Hank, in his Tarzan outfit, stuffing his shorts full of ganga. We swam in the nearby waterfalls, and it was quite idyllic.
After a few days in the hills, we came back down to the beach for our final few days in Jamaica. Things seemed pretty calm in Negril, and one morning we found ourselves sprawled out in the sand with a large group of people, in a very relaxed, Negril state of mind.
One of the hassles of beach life in many Third World countries is the beach touts who will often disturb the peace and quiet by hawking goods. I don't begrudge these people the opportunity to make some cash, and they work harder for a couple of dollars that 99% of N. Americans.
What I don't like is the continuous harassment, especially if the wares hold no interest whatsoever.
We would always look forward to the arrival of the pastry lady who sold us beautiful fresh fruit cakes and other home-made delights. The drink man was always welcome at our little beach camp, and friendly locals would come to sit and chat (especially because we always seemed to be in the company of bikini-clad hippy girls).
We were doing the usual beach routine, still dazed from the effects of the “night before and the morning after” routine. A tout walked up and started harassing everyone to buy some bongs and mugs carved out of bamboo. We politely told him we weren't interested; acting like he didn't hear us, he began to spread his wares on our blankets and towels.
I told him we weren't interested, and he stuck a bong in front of my face, saying: "It's a good bong, mon, I give you good price." I made the fateful mistake of asking how much, and he gave me some ridiculous price. I said I could by the same thing for one-fifth the price across the street from George's, and he said that was impossible. I should have known better than to engage him in dialogue, but I told him his prices were too high, and were, in fact, a rip-off.
I guess he must have thought the words "rip-off" was swearing, because he took the bong and whacked me real hard, right between the eyes. He was a fairly stocky fellow, probably had worked in the cane fields at some point. I was seeing stars, but when I put my hand up to my head and felt the blood oozing out from the newly-formed gash, I went berserk.
Normally, I am a very passive person, and I have walked away from many fights in my travels, because it is always easier in the long run. But when my body or someone I know is threatened, then you've messed with the wrong character. I jumped up and grabbed that sucker by the throat, and proceeded to drag him into the water. I was taking great delight in my delirious state as I was drowning the bastard, when I was pulled off of him by the people around me.
I was more than a bit insane at that point, so I grabbed all of his wares and starting throwing them into the jungle and the water. Finally, I calmed down, and some of the women who were with us began to attend to the wound, which was still bleeding profusely- my face was covered in blood. Once that was under control, I was urged by my companions to go to the police to press charges.
After the bleeding stopped, I walked into town to report the incident to police. Along the way, who did I spot but the same local, selling his goods to an elderly couple (many tourist bused into Negril to see the hippies at play). The sight of this guy caused me to lose control again, and I grabbed his box of artifacts and threw them into a nearby river!
The police were very sympathetic to my plight, and were very interested in having me press charges against the tout. They knew exactly who he was, and claimed he was real trouble-maker who had recently stabbed a tourist, who refused to press charges. The police explained they were worried that many urban Jamaicans, known as “rude boys” were migrating to Negril to benefit from the influx of foreigners.
Unfortunately, to stay in Negril for a trial the next week was impossible, as I had my ticket out the next day. The police even called Air Jamaica to see if the ticket could be extended, but they claimed it was impossible. I had to forego pressing charges, and I still wonder if this guy eventually murdered someone.
It was a sad way for me to leave Jamaica, because the place was so beautiful; it was my first experience in the tropics and the Third World, and 99.9% of the people were fantastic. But I had been robbed and beaten, and I became tired of the beach hustle.
Hand Me the Keys, Please
With reservations in our hearts and tickets in hand, we departed Montego Bay and flew back to Miami. Hank and I weren't done with our tropical adventures, however. It was still too soon to head north, so we decided to travel south from Miami to the Florida Keys, to a small island reputed to be a hangout for those seeking to escape the northern cold on the cheap.
We made our way to the Greyhound bus depot in Miami, soon passing fabled resorts Coral Gables and Key Largo enroute to the Florida Keys. The water didn't have the same tinge of Caribbean blue as Jin amaica, but it was still plenty warm and idyllic.
We arrived at Grassy Key to find a cast of characters squatting amongst the Florida salt water pines. Police raids, however, were frequent, but we decided to give it a go anyhow.
We spent about 5 days on Grassy Key, snorkeling along a reef, spear fishing for dinner, and generally enjoying a blissful existence. One night, about 40 people gathered on the small islet, and everyone brought some food for dinner. We prepared an enormous fish stew in an old milk can over a wood fire. It was delicious, the camaraderie among Northerners seeking shelter from the cold was fantastic.
We knew Florida State troopers would evict us sooner or later. One afternoon, they showed up and told everyone to be off the island by sunset or we'd all be arrested, blared over a bullhorn; no one seemed too perturbed. We did take our tents down, however, which was only a slight inconvenience, since it was glorious weather.
Most of the people departed, someone left a brand new lawn lounge chair behind. Hank, a few other brave/foolish derelicts and I camped out in the open on the wide beach at Grassy Key. About 2 am, we awoke to a loud blare from a bullhorn: "You're all under arrest, don't move."
I jumped up from my comfortable sleeping bag and came face to face with a State Trooper, a sawed off shotgun pointed at my face. It was an interesting sort of sleeping bag ballet I went through: jumping off seeing the shotgun, trying to put my arms in the air, and falling back, all in one motion.
The troopers were seriously pissed we hadn't obeyed their order to evict the island. After we were roused and lined up, presented identification, one cop jumped on my lounger with a knife and slashed it to bits. Very mellow people, these good old southern boys. Probably let off steam by fishing with dynamite.
Fortunately, they were in no mood to put a few scraggly long-hairs in jail; after several minutes of harassment, one of the Troopers turned to me and said: "Where the hell you from, boy?”
I, of course, was a proud Canadian, and replied: "From Canada, sir" (always emphasize the sir when dealing with local authorities anywhere on this planet!). He said: "Well, you git the hell on up that old highway to Canada right now, boy".
Even though it was 3 am, I wasn't going to argue how we were going to “git on up that old highway.” Hank, two other characters and I immediately made a beeline down the road towards US 1. At the first possible juncture, we jumped off into the bush, found a small isolated beach where we slept in fits with images of state troopers yielding knives and shotguns.
Hank decided to head back to Canada the next day, but I was determined to spend more time in the sunny south. I stayed in the keys, legally camping in two fine state parks: Long key, and Bahia Honda. For about three more weeks, I had a great time eating fresh seafood, drinking liquor, down to Key West to watch the famous sunset and generally having a fine time in the Florida sunshine.
I hitchicked solo from Key West to Detroit. Most people who pick up hitchhikers are generous, and if you return this generosity with conversation, the miles pass rather quickly.
On my way north, I stopped in Zephyrhills to visit my paternal grandmother and her husband Red Roy. Despite my best efforts to drag out the winter in the south, I departed Zephyrhills in March, hitching north to a still frozen Canada.
The next time I returned to Florida and Zephyrhills was many years later, after my Grandmother passed awayto take one last look at her property before it was sold, on my way to Pampona Beach.