Published: 9th January 2005
In Jamaica, even dominoes is a drama. “It’s a man’s game, dominoes,” a cab driver tells me. “They’re so loud, man, you can hear them slappin’ the table a mile away”. The weather is equally theatrical, with the raw sun tempered by sudden rainstorms and the sky putting on a pageant every morning and every night.
Yet this strange, exotic island seems strangely familiar, and it isn’t just the dominoes. There’s the Anglican church wedged into a mountain of banana plantations; Noël Coward’s terrace, still laid out with gold-rimmed plates for a 1965 lunch with the Queen Mother at his little bungalow, Firefly; the names of Jamaica’s three counties, Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey. Jamaica was British from the 1600s, when we wrenched it from the Spanish, until 1962 when it became independent, and even now the language is English yet not English.
The quick-fire patois mixes English, Spanish and various African dialects — but it feeds into the regular, more formal English spoken here, too, so that a magical, ever-changing language lifts off the lips of the Jamaicans, twisting and turning. It’s worth coming here just to listen. “Bly”, for instance, is an opportunity to escape an unwanted chore, as in “De rain gimme a bly — me na haffe go a wuk”. “Pickaninnys” are small children; sex is “night food”; “live blanket” is a body, as in “You need a live blanket?”.
Even the most ordinary- seeming Jamaican will come up with startling phrase after phrase, with a lilt and humour that makes our spoken language seem moribund: “My princess, you’re looking dashing tonight. I might steal you away right now.”
Here, everyone flamboyantly interacts with everyone else, teasing and joking and laughing. (“I would never live in a country where you can’t bribe the police,” said the Rastafarian tarot reader augustly, when I asked him about the police’s attitude to ganja, or marijuana, which many Rastafarians smoke as part of their religion — then he grinned.) People complain of bad government and poverty, but seem remarkably cheerful. The Rastafarian tarot reader informed me that what Jamaican men fear most of all is lack of sexual potency.
Not surprisingly, Jamaicans display a great interest in the aphrodisiac qualities of plants, and Jamaica seems to grow every glorious fruit and plant imaginable: travellers’ palms, which you shake to draw out pure fresh rainwater, night jasmine, allspice, sour orange, frangipani, avocado trees (the stem of the avocado helps to clear eye infections), eucalyptus trees, coconut trees (the tree of life, which has, apparently, the purest oil and purest water to cleanse the bloodstream), almond trees, African tulip or flames of the forest, cotton trees where evil spirits hang out. As for aphrodisiacs, boil young bananas and bark, then drink the water. I was told: “Dragon plants are good for protecting against evil spirits.”
“Where are the spirits?” I inquired.
“They transform into birds and frogs. They’re very numerous, these spirits and ghosts. A friend’s grandmother comes to her as a bird. She’s always with him.”
Ackee is good for skin rashes, and the fruit soursop is the Jamaican Viagra, and can be made into a tea for night-time, sweetened with honey. The “roots man” sells the potions from his shack.
Over in the paradisiacal Goldeneye resort, on the north side of the island near the banana port of Oracabessa, a wild fig tree grows extravagantly, sending down roots as if trying to outdo all other fig trees in the world, and the charged, fecund atmosphere must have helped Ian Fleming to write his Bond thrillers here during his January and February visits.
The wooden houses, which are rented out by the day, look as if they’ve just wandered into the jungle and decided to stay; outdoor showers, bamboo recliners, surrounded by palms or banyan trees. You can swim, or take the little boat over a lagoon to a deserted beach, or write on the terraces or desks of the secluded houses, including Fleming’s original house: “I sat down at the red bullet-wood desk... and, for better or for worse, wrote the first of 12 best-selling thrillers that have sold about 20m copies and been translated into 23 languages. I wrote every one of them at this desk with the jalousies closed around me so that I would not be distracted by the birds and the flowers and the sunshine outside... The books featured a man called James Bond... Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it.”
The testosterone-filled Bond thrillers are not so different from the bombastic songs of reggae singers trumpeting their sexual skills: “They don’t call me Mr Lover because I like ice cream,” boasts Shaggy. Maybe it’s something in the air.
This has long been a party island; sexy, exuberant, mischievous, funny and wild. Both the people and the ravishing beauty of the island get under the skin. (Columbus described it as “the fairest isle my eyes ever beheld”.) Noël Coward fell for it after renting Fleming’s estate. Coward’s first estate was the nearby Blue Harbour, on the coast, with a saltwater pool where nobody was allowed to wear clothes, a small beach, a main house and two guesthouses, where his friends — including Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cecil Beaton and Laurence Olivier — used to stay. John Pringle, who created the Round Hill resort, was asked to meet Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, there, and turned up to see them “naked on Noël’s terrace, Vivien draped over Larry’s cock. It was some introduction!”.
To escape his visitors, Coward built Firefly, a one- bedroom house up on the hill, where he died of a heart attack in 1973 and where he is buried on the hillside. It has been left much as it was when he died: the sun has bleached the books and the furniture, but his typewriter is still on his desk, his florid paintings of men are still in his art studio, and pictures of the Queen Mother’s visit (the lobster mousse didn’t defrost in time, and Coward had to make a last-minute soup, and the white-gloved butler was so overwhelmed by her beauty all he could do was stare at her) are still on the walls. The view of the coastline is peculiarly lovely, with the dense green limbs from the hills resting in the Caribbean Sea as if part of some fabulous sleeping monster.
Jamaica still feels like a giant party. In a remote poor village of shacks, plump-bottomed women were setting up a sound system seven feet high for an outdoor party that afternoon. Tourists party like crazy in the all-inclusive resorts; Hedonism III is the name of one, and plenty have nude or “clothing optional” beaches.
As for Round Hill (00 1 800 972 2159, www.roundhilljamaica.com), near Montego Bay, it was built to be a party of the most exclusive kind, with houses sold off to the very rich or very beautiful back in the 1950s. It is still a glorious resort, the smartest of all, with white shutters, blue-and-white awnings, sudden shocks of Caribbean pink, and cheerful pink-uniformed maids who serve you breakfast in the morning in the houses, rented out as suites when the owners, who include Ralph Lauren, aren’t using them.
I didn’t care for Jamaica Inn: retired people playing patience on the admittedly lovely verandas and Black Magic Woman played in the evening instead of reggae. A Jamaican told me that it was good for people “who like to take it real easy, escape the hustle and bustle”.
Wherever you stay, though, the real entertainment isn’t in the resorts. Even in the poor northern part of the island, towards Port Antonio, where you can travel for hours and not see a white face, there is an energy everywhere, and people move with grace and style. Visit the “bend-down” market in Falmouth (you have to bend down to look at the goods laid out on the ground), pit your wits against fast-talking market traders in craft markets, drive through the misty, verdant Blue Mountains or drift on a bamboo raft down the Rio Grande, as Errol Flynn used to do, while grey herons watch the water with hunched shoulders as swimmers call out offers of love and women lay out their clothes to dry.
Kingston, too, even with its no-go areas, is a revelation, as you drive through its Beverly Hills area of diplomatic houses or lounge on the terrace of Norma’s restaurant, eating Busby Berkeley salads of tropical fruits while watching the high society of Jamaica’s capital city. Visit Bob Marley’s birthplace at the village of Nine Mile, high in the mountains in the parish of St Ann, where the Rastafarian guides resolutely smoke their ganja while telling stories of their hero.
For a change from sun and beach, wind past fern forests, rivers and waterfalls in the Blue Mountains, which can be both operatically splendid and quietly moody. As the sun lazily drapes over the mountains, reggae drifts up from the valley below. The owner of the Strawberry Hill resort, Chris Blackwell, first promoted Marley, and the black-and-white photographs on the walls include ones of Mick Jagger and Marley. “Every little thing gonna be alright” soothingly sings out as you eat the national dish, saltfish and ackee (like haddock and scrambled egg), or tropical fruits and pancakes and banana bread.
Marley came to Strawberry Hill to recuperate after being shot. The shadows in the folds of the mountains are indeed blue, and in the early morning, dark trees dance like shadow puppets on the crest of the hill. Hummingbirds hover like jewelled daggers above hibiscus flowers so bright, it’s as though all the red from miles around has been poured into them.
In the drama and stillness of Jamaica, some tightly folded buds of hibiscus are about to unswirl, ball dresses of vibrant colour that look far too huge and bright to be merely flowers. From the cluster of wooden houses, with their fretwork of lovemaking couples, snakes and palm leaves, you watch the sun dropping in a burning sky over Kingston below. No wonder so many people come to this island, and never want to leave.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Caribtours.
Caribtours (020 7751 0660, www.caribtours.co.uk) offers a seven-night stay at Jamaica Inn from £1,068pp, room-only, including flights with Air Jamaica from Heathrow. A week at Strawberry Hill starts at £1,321pp, room-only; a week at Goldeneye starts at £1,846pp, all-inclusive, flying BA from Gatwick. Or try Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0613, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), British Airways Holidays (0870 243 3406, www.baholidays.co.uk) or Kuoni (01306 742222, www.kuoni.co.uk).