Montego Bay, Jamaica
Just a week ago I was 1-2-3-stepping (and not infrequently mis-stepping) with my new friends to the spicy salsa beats that permeate every side street and thoroughfare of Havana, Cuba. Now as I sense the rise of the steamy, prickly Jamaican sun and smell the sea churning just feet from my villa balcony here on the sleepy outskirts of Montego Bay, Cuba feels like a different trip from some other time.
After a rough start that saw me robbed of about half a year’s worth of savings, Cuba and I found our peace pretty quickly. I eased back into my more natural travel-state of openness and curiosity (but never quite got comfortable enough to revert to wearing my day pack on my back instead of to my front). I walked those hot streets Havana —all day, every day, everywhere. I sweat out my fears and my mistrust and made touching and transformative things, like friends and music.
Bought a wood ‘clave’ for 8 bucks and got to jam in the street with these masters
In charming Trinidad I found myself popping out disheveled and makeup-less for ‘one quick sunset mojito’ at La Casa de la Musica—a harmless half hour that in the presence of searing, live open-air music performed by impossibly talented ten-piece bands, would magically morph into hours of wild salsa dancing under the stars in my flimsy flip flops. Yes, I danced like nobody was watching.
I went on adventures, like attending a Santería ceremony under a big bridge, complete with chicken sacrifice (!) and spirit-possessed Priestess (!). Like walking the dark and desolate 5 km stretch of road from Trinidad to my guesthouse in the tiny fishing village of La Boca, rather than taking a taxi (thank you to my new Cuban friend for the company, protection, laughter and conversation along the way. You are a true adventurer and I wouldn’t/couldn’t have done it without you). I met wonderful people from exotic places whom I hope I will meet again.
Cuba wound its way into my heart a little more every day. It felt too soon to leave.
And now I am here, in Jamaica. But where the hell am I? I guess I didn’t check the map carefully enough when I booked this place last year (or I was so taken with the view that I forgot to check), because I’m about 100 miles from nowhere. There is my huge apartment in this beautiful villa with the most incredible sea view—but there are no restaurants, no bars, no grocery stores, no people. Just me and a smattering of other villa-dwellers who come and go like the tide, and two adorable resident dogs that accompany me on my run every morning. I’m gorging myself on the view and the smell of the salty ocean, because there is nothing else.
I’ve had to figure out the “route taxi” system if I want to get anywhere at all, which amounts to standing on the shoulder of the highway as cars whizz by at 150 km/h and waiting for one of the ones with the red license plates to pull over and take you near to your destination. It’s like hitchhiking, except there are other people in the vehicle with you doing the same thing, and you pay somewhere between $1 and $2 for the ride. This is how I buy groceries (and wine!) and get to places like Montego Bay proper, where I thought I was staying but very clearly am not.
Oh, and you also try to look as nonchalant and bored as the locals who are crammed into the vehicle with you about the fact that you’re careening down the highway at 150 km/h, darting in and out of traffic with barely a hair’s breadth of distance between your car and the one in front of you, running red lights (which are only a suggestion here), wearing no seatbelts. There the Jamaican ladies are with their small babies in their arms, no car seats, no belts, not looking scared or nervous at all because That’s Just How Things Work Here. You do your best not to show that your heart is in your mouth.
What do you do when there’s nothing to do? You take the 10% that has happened to you and focus on the 90% of how you’re going to deal with it. You find beauty and treasures in it.
I paddle around in the bright turquoise sea and play in the waves and think about what I want my life to be. I so rarely take time to think about that, but I can do it here because it feels less important and scary when I’m surrounded by the vastness of the sea. The sea is bigger than everything.
I buy fruit from Lola at the rickety stand up the highway (walking distance!) and she shares a custard apple with me so that I can taste one for the first time in her presence. I meet Paul the fisherman, who comes out twice a week to this beach with his flippers and his spear gun to catch food for his family. He teaches me the names of fish I’ve never seen or heard of before. I take garbage bags and work gloves down to the beach and pick up the trash that the tide abandons there, and smile as some locals shake my hand and thank me, but do not offer help. I watch Candy the 15-year-old dog and Cookie, her daughter, bound crazily along the beach and dive into the waves and dig crabs out of the sand like their life depended on it. There are no two happier dogs anywhere.
I lie in the hammock under the almond tree with a glass of wine, watching the sky burn pink and purple as the sun goes to bed.
And I write. I write for me, which is something else I don’t do often enough.
I am stranded in paradise.