KINGSTON | JAMAICA
AFICIONADOS OF BLACK EYE LINER AND MORTAL ENEMY OF THE NINJA. DURING THE 1600’S THE CITY OF PORT ROYAL, JUST OUTSIDE MODERN DAY KINGSTON, WAS THE BLACK HEARTED CENTRE OF PIRACY IN THE CARIBBEAN. KNOWN AS THE “WICKEDEST CITY IN THE WORLD” IT MET ITS GRISLY END IN 1692 WHEN AN EARTHQUAKE SUNK THE DEBAUCHOROUS ENCLAVE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE CARIBBEAN SEA. IT’S SECRETS ARE NOW FOREVER ENTOMBED INSIDE DAVY JONES’S LOCKER.
Piracy and skulduggery is still alive and well here in Kingston. Don’t believe the airport staff who tell you there is no bus into the city centre and that you’ll have to take a taxi. As I found out a few days later, a bus does indeed ply the route from the town centre past the airport and onto Port Royal on the other side of the headland. Still at least my overpriced taxi driver was a friendly guy, even if I could barely understand some of the stuff he was saying. Here in Jamaica the locals speak a form of pigeon english called patois, which is basically the King’s good tongue mixed with a small part of creole. What makes it frustrating to listen to sometimes is that you realise you should understand it, but the speed and the arrangement of the words turns your brain into a monkey riding a unicycle.
I arrived at my hostel which, like most buildings around here, was walled off like a medieval fort. Kingston is not a safe city. In fact is known as one of the world’s “murder capitals” with on average eight people being murdered here every day. EIGHT. That’s the majority of a football team. I wouldn’t mind sending the Manchester City squad here on holidays….
My main reason for braving the Murder Capital was to visit the site of the infamous pirate den of Port Royal. In preparation I’d watched all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and memorised all of Johnny Depp’s moves. I was ready for anything, barring anything genuinely supernatural. Or guys with real weapons. Or guys. Or a large gang of children. Taxi’s proved to be pretty expensive so I spent a while at the local bus station, finally nabbing a seat on the bus going into the town centre, before getting on a connecting bus which chugged along the route out towards Port Royal – or at least what’s left of it. First things first though, Central Kingston is terrible. It looks like it was hit by the 1692 earthquake itself and never properly rebuilt. And it smells like wee.
What little remains of Port Royal hangs precariously at the end of the headland jutting out from the city of Kingston on Jamaica’s south coast. There are very few reminders here of it’s glorious past. Originally there were several forts here. The only surviving one is the Charles Fort, home for many years to British admiral Horatio Nelson. Out the back is a cool little curiosity known as the Giddy House. This was the munitions storehouse for the fort but was partially buried in a later earthquake. It now remains tilted to the side giving you a weird feeling when you walk inside as your senses pack their suitcases and leave. There is also a small museum on site displaying interesting things from the era such as old pirate maps and pieces of eight. It’s not a mind blowing place, but it’s worth an hour or two if you are in Kingston, especially if you are interested in the era of piracy in the Caribbean. If you can scuba dive and are backed by s small bank you can obtain special permission from the Jamaican government to dive to the sunken city. Just look out for Cthulhu when you’re down there. No one can convince me he didn’t have a part in this.
Back at the hostel my fellow travelers were a varied bunch. You had the usual white rasta-wannabes mixed in with more genuine backpackers. One german girl had designs on renting a house here in Kingston with her american friend. the hostel staff almost fainted when she relayed the location. “You’d better have a personal bodyguard”. No one likes to hear that. She spent the majority of her stay frantically phoning the american girl trying to arrange alternatives while worrying about meeting the increasingly dodgy sounding landlord. Night time at the on site bar was always fun though. We got talking to a genuine old Rastafarian guy who had just returned from meeting a friend of his – a guitarist from Bob Marley’s old band The Wailers. I didn’t know a lot about the rasta movement, probably just as much as anyone else – they loved reggae, cannabis and wearing brightly coloured hats. In a nutshell they believe the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was the new Jesus and prophesised Lion of Judea. Selassie did a lot of good internationally but came under constant fire from human rights groups for the autocratic and illiberal rule of his own country. Our rasta friend also wasn’t too enamored with gay people – “I’d cut off their heads”. Not exactly the “Let’s get together and feel alright” kind of attitude I’d been lead to believe existed here.
Speaking of reggae, the next day I was inspired to walk down to Bob Marley’s house. You are taken on a guided tour through his house, which also contained his recording studio. The house is impressive by Kingston standards but I guess is quite modest in it’s own way. The upstairs walls are covered in newspaper clippings from his career, and another interesting feature of the house is the bullet holes that remain from the day someone attempted to assassinate him. A few days later he played a concert with a bullet still lodged in his arm. That’s dedication for you. Or the effect of weed. Lots and lots of weed.
On the way back I stopped into the impressive Devon House. A grand old Caribbean house it was constructed in the 19th century by Jamaica’s first black millionaire George Steibel. An entrance ticket here also gives you a free ice cream which you can enjoy in the leafy garden around back. I did just that before heading across the road to TGI Friday’s for some cocktails. It was hot.
My next journey would take me right through the center of the island. From Kingston on the south coast I would head up to Montego Bay on the island’s north. Here I planned to visit Jamaica’s most haunted house Rose Hall, a building with a dark history steeped in murder, voodoo and witchcraft. I boarded the Knutsford Express bus (reserve online!) and began the six hour journey north through winding hills, lush green fields and knarled forests peppered with spraying waterfalls. The Jamaican countryside is stunning. If, for whatever reason, you find yourself with a good amount of time in Kingston I’d highly recommend going on a tour, or doing some hiking in the Blue Mountains beyond the city. The jungle clad slopes are famous for it’s coffee production and for it’s rebellious history where the local maroon people waged a guerilla war on British troops. There are even legends of Chris Columbus burying a treasure here, but I guess that’s an expedition for another day – if I’m still alive.
I arrived at Montego Bay bus station with no idea how to get to my hostel. I knew that it was someone just outside of town but beyond that details were scarce. A local taxi driver claimed to know the owner and brought me on a half hour ride while talking on the phone. I’m gonna get kidnapped aren’t I? Things didn’t improve when the owner turned up in a beaten up, unmarked van. His name was Whistler Brown and like most Jamaican’s born before 1980 he was a reggae artist. He lived up the hill in the middle of no where. The “hostel” was just his house / recording studio which he shared with another equally spaced out dude. I stayed in the spare bedroom where nothing worked. If the guys hadn’t been so friendly I’d assume I was being held prisoner. To get something to eat I had to walk 40 mins up and down the hill to get to the main road and civilisation, and all that they had were fried chicken and chips. The locals weren’t too friendly either. A bunch of dreadlocked guys yelled at me from a bar they were gonna cut my head off, while an old woman claimed she hoped I got ebola when I told her I was going to Africa next year. Maybe it’s the fact that they obviously don’t get any visitors around here, or maybe I’m missing something with an extremely dark sense of humour. I didn’t take any chances by returning the “jokes” and claiming I was gonna petrol bomb their houses. And I could have. I’m irish. You messed with the wrong unattached drifter Jamaica.
The next day after refueling yet again on fried chicken and chips Whistler Brown (available for weddings, funerals and bar misbahs) offered to take me on the short trip to the Caribbean’s House of Horrors (no not my hostel). Rose Hall is famous for the legend of the White Witch Annie Palmer who, it’s said, black widowed three husbands into premature graves. The story goes that Annie’s care taker was a Haitian voodoo queen who taught her the way of the dark arts. With this knowledge she subjugated her superstitious slaves and slaughtered her husbands before finally being murdered herself by a spurned lover among her slaves. Many doubt the veracity of the story but it’s is certainly played up during the guided tour through the old house. Today a small graveyard lies beside the house and here it is said lies the body of the White Witch herself. Many still feel the malevolent presence of the voodoo queen in the house, and it takes the bravest of souls to spend the night there. Johnny Cash owned a plantation house nearby (sans slaves – I think) and wrote a famous song about Annie Palmer and her penchant for burying her lovers under a golf course. Tinder in old Jamaica was no joke.
In the basement – which was a former torture chamber – there is a bar selling the property’s specialty. It’s a rum based cocktail called Witch’s Brew. I took some out with me and sat on the stone steps outside. Rose Hall sits on top of a hill overlooking the azure waters of Montego Bay. It’s definitely a beautiful place, but like most places in the Caribbean is rife with dark stories and eerie folklore. Here, apart from the more famous zombies, dwell other supernatural creatures such as duppies and hants – essentially ghosts returned to haunt the living. The Caribbean islands remain a very superstitious place to this day. When the sun goes down on the white sand beaches and the beach-side bars flicker to life to the sound of clinking rum bottles, the old folk among the locals firmly shut the doors and windows and light the fires to ward off whatever might be lurking in the tropical shadows.
I was kinda of glad to leave Montego Bay, and Jamaica in general behind me. I’m not much of a beach resort kinda guy. That’s cool for a while but I don’t think I could base an entire holiday around it. Here in Jamaica it seems that once you leave the safety of the beaches it can be a very different country, one very dissimilar to the postcard image many people have. It’s definitely an interesting place though. It’s modern history from it’s beginning as property of the Columbus family, through the days of piracy and voodoo to the modern Rastafarian and reggae scenes is fascinating. Just be on your guard, and watch your head.
Next time: What do you do as soon as you land in South America? You head straight into the Amazon right? So that’s what I did and I learned that parrots hate me.