- Published: Tuesday, 09 April 2013 12:44
09 April 2013
A good friend—who is a young former Marine Captain and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan—was taking a break from grad school when he headed to Jamaica. I emailed asking how his vacation went. His answer…is a trip. My friend's letter has been edited so that it would make sense and provide context for a general readership.
(Side note: it is possible that a major war will soon break out on the Korean Peninsula. If major combat begins, I will head over. Seoul is a five-hour direct flight from Chiang Mai. I am checking my gear today. If it stays to a low rumble, I will watch from the bleachers in Chiang Mai.)
Jamaica was something. I have lived overseas in challenging countries for over 20 years. I am American, but was raised overseas, including in such exotic locations as Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
When I became a Marine officer, they sent me to Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand, and elsewhere, where I served up to rank of Captain before heading to graduate school. Before and between all this, I have backpacked or traveled to dozens of countries and locations such as Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, northern Laos, eastern Costa Rica, Borneo, and Penang, trying to soak it all in.
I have seen good scams, including in Sri Lanka, such as having random people walk up to you and try to coax you into an impromptu tour, immediately joined by random taxis and whatnot at just the right time.
Some of the other scams include bribes, various bar scams, overcharging, or innocuous ones such as taxis refusing to use their meters.
Bribe-fishing includes getting pulled over by cops for the most random “violations” that can be made to “go away” with a small on-the-spot “fine.” Bar-scams include random drinks added to your tab, especially if you’ve been drinking. Or simply not listing prices.
I’ve even been told of drugged drinks in relatively safer tourist-friendly destinations such as Thailand. A friend fell victim—waking up in an alley with his money and credit cards gone.
Members of my family and friends have had purses snatched or have been pickpocketed. Travelers can reduce risks by hiring a trusted guide or by staying in respected hotels, but of course that costs money—and authenticity, as you are safely shuttled from destination to destination.
Jamaica is famous for all-inclusive resorts, and the entire island is dotted with them. They include everything from tiered brand-name resorts such as Sandals or Beaches that advertise constantly in the states, to smaller resorts. Prices range from about $100 to thousands per day.
Jamaica averages about 4 – 5 cruise ships a week. Tourists pour in for a full day on the island, especially in places like Montego Bay, where they crowd well-known spots such as Hip strip or Margaritaville.
I wanted to experience a more authentic Jamaica. So I rented a car.
I remembered your Indian stories, experienced my own South Asian ones, and think I can safely add Jamaica to the list of places to watch out for. Jamaica is known as a relatively dangerous destination, and so even a seasoned traveler like myself got burned.
I was driving with two experienced backpackers for parts of the adventure. During the journey, we faced the normal issues—nearly getting run off the road, a couple minor dents, and pulled over twice by bribe-fishing cops.
On the flip side, that car got us to some of the more remote beaches, cheap guesthouses, and prevented us from having to viciously haggle down the throngs of taxis waiting to take you to their choice of destination so they could get their cut.
The festival’s location is the red arrow above. The capital, Kingston, is almost directly south on the southern end of the island. About two hours west of us by car is the famous Montego Bay, and on the west tip, the 7-mile beach of Negril. Further east from us is the fairly secluded Port Antonio / Blue Lagoon area, which was a trip highlight, and highly recommended for future Jamaica visitors looking to get off the beaten path. (The Tom Cruise movie Cocktail was filmed there.)
On what was so far a great trip, we arrived at one of the famous beach parties on our last day in Jamaica. The annual festival called J'ouvert coincides with Carnival, and is a time of wildness on many Caribbean islands.
J'ouvert celebrates, in part, the emancipation from slavery. During the celebration people are covered in paint, similar to Holi in India and Nepal.
For this leg of the trip, there were four of us sharing the car. We parked in a guarded lot—everyone parked in or by this lot. I placed my wallet inside a cargo pocket, and as a security measure, fastened a safety pin to reinforce my Velcro cargo pocket.
Within the hour I got pickpocketed. The thief grabbed about $70 and tossed the wallet. I was amazed that the thief managed to defeat what I’d thought was a decent deterrent. I was pickpocketed in the center of the party grounds, discovered it within moments, and notified the police within minutes.
The wallet had already been “found” about 20 yards away. The police smugly asked if I had simply lost the wallet—highly unlikely, given that the pocket was safety-pinned shut. Hats off to the thief though—he pulled off a tricky feat.
Takeaway: secure the wallet better. An experienced thief can circumvent the thwarts, but the harder it gets, the more he moves on to easy targets.
Recently, my mother’s purse was snatched in Vietnam, and I have heard of people simply getting pockets or purses slashed. As it happens, even if I had left my wallet secured in the car, it would not have helped. . . .
While we were at the festival, the rental car was robbed. Our luggage and valuables were locked in the trunk, to discourage would-be thieves from peering in the windows. This reeked of an elaborate scam—of the type you told me about in India. As mentioned, earlier we were pulled over on two occasions by cops fishing for bribes. Our paperwork was in order. During the first incident, one of us, who was driving at the time, did well playing ignorant, a textbook performance of the type of training you get at SERE, or the experience you mentioned with your brush with the Immigration at SEATAC airport. The police had summoned him out of the car, and moved back to the police vehicle parked behind us, and well out of earshot.
The police wanted about $50 US. After about five minutes of back and forth, the frustrated police officers surprisingly gave up, and told us to just “move along.” I guess they didn’t really have much to charge us on—the charge had been speeding—but then again, everyone was going about 10mph over the limit. (This could have been a legitimate attempt to ticket—who knows—but the manner in which they went about it screamed bribe.)
At the J'ouvert festival's conclusion, we returned to find cops around our car. The sun was up and we were covered in paint. Only one of us, the would-be driver, was sober. The cops had apparently “caught the guys in the act” of breaking into the rental car, and requested that we follow them to the police station.
And so we spent our last night in Jamaica at a rural police station—I’d like to say in the town of Galina, but I can’t be sure—sobering up, covered head-to-toe in red and blue paint, sitting next to the guy who supposedly tried to steal the car but only ended up robbing it, and who, funnily enough, was also covered in paint.
Try giving statements when you are drunk and look like a bucket of paint just got poured all over you—the cops were having a good time! Also there was our “parking attendant” who the cops pulled in for questioning. He kept apologizing profusely, but no one was buying his tale.
The last-minute “drug deal” we made, helped along by the cops, was for us not to press charges, and in return, we would get back our possessions.
Otherwise, we’d have to try our hand at the Jamaican legal system. The second choice would probably involve us missing our flight, contacting the embassy, and so on; no one wanted to do that. We would have spent more in airfare, hotels, and whatever other charges than we would have to replace the few hundred dollars’ worth of electronics the thieves got away with.
One of the backpackers, “Jack,” had a bit of a temper—he was stressing—so I worked to make sure that only a couple of us were speaking with the cops. All those hours wasted at random military outposts in random places, and the hurry-up-and-wait mentality of the military, made me close to immune to getting hot-tempered or stressed out with the situation. Jack was moving toward heated arguments with the cops and had to be coaxed into waiting on the side. One from our group had gotten into a minor argument with the parking attendant. The cops wisely pulled us aside and advised us to not antagonize these guys further, because that would make it harder to get our stuff back.
It was true—an argument wasn’t going to help—we were trying to negotiate our belongings back with perhaps a not-too-disciplined police force—and we were trapped and at their mercy—with a serious time constraint, and no time to contact our embassy and await any assistance.
The situation reminded me of local politics in Iraq and Afghanistan—everyone’s in cahoots with everyone else—the cop you work with daily has a brother who has a friend who is the bomb-maker, and so nabbing that guy becomes a complex proposition—it’s all about relationships and status if you hope to get anything done, or in this case, returned to you.
A mediator-friend of the gang had returned the goods at around 6:30 in the morning, and was greeted by the cops with hugs and jokes. They all obviously knew each other, and even the arrested suspect was on friendly terms with the police. This was just like any other Saturday night for him, it seemed. The guy’s family, wife and kids and all were even outside the police station hanging around.
The negotiation lasted about eight hours, a couple dozen phone calls (the goods had been distributed among the six-person gang, and each had to be reassured that no charges would be pressed), but we got our belongings, minus some pocket money.
I returned the car on an empty tank as we were rushing to make the flight—the first one at 9 AM. Were we not in such a rush, I would have stayed around for breakfast and probably taken some photos with the cops and thieves. I wasn’t upset at this point, but quite sober and amused, and thankful that we had our possessions and no one was hurt.
As for the car, the steering wheel had dramatically misaligned due to hitting numerous potholes from the previous week—two new dents (every car in Jamaica has several, including luxury cars), a very visibly dented front-left wheel rim, a broken left turn light, and the inside looked like a paint-filled balloon had exploded. None of us had showered or changed clothes. The rental agency representative burst out laughing when he saw the car—both the outside and inside had healthy splotches of red paint to top it all off. I wish I had taken more photos to share!
Luckily the car was insured (definitely insure in a place like Jamaica), and I only paid about $150, for deductible. It helped that the representative was sympathetic to our tale and did not charge us as much as he could have.
For perspective, an average cab fare from Montego to Kingston Bay can run about $300, and bus ride on one of the charter or luxury buses will easily cost $25 a head. There are cheaper, slower, and more rudimentary alternatives, of course.
So I cleaned up as best I could, and still ended up looking like a lobster on the flights back—the red paint simply spread around my skin. The sunburn didn’t help.
Verdict: Jamaica is beautiful. Good beaches, fun people, great festivals, but if you just want a vacation, stay at the all-inclusive resorts that dot the island.
Now I need a vacation to relax from this one. . . .