What’s Jamaica like? Well so far (and to me) it strikes me as a friendly, sweet, and relatively prosperous third world country. It’s a place where the most common of slogans are “No problem mon!” and “Don’t worry, be happy.” Of course being a careful academic, I’m skeptical. Is this carefree presentation real? I wonder. Certainly all those who interface with the tourists are well aware of the huge income disparities between the visitors and themselves. And how could that not get them deeply angry? Same time, IF they put on a happy face and present themselves as a worry free/ “I can do anything mon Jamaicans,” they can garner many much valued tourist dollars. Moreover, when they’re by themselves, they’re largely scheming about how to pull off one deal or the next… Certainly another possibility is they’re all high on ganja…and life from a stoned perspective is pretty damn good!
What else? My first impressions were that Jamaica is quite like sub-Saharan Africa. Same equatorial climate—similar vegetation, thick moist air, shanty-town looking housing, similar smells… But my view thus far is one of a relatively high-end tourist. Unlike many of my other travel-adventures, I flew into the tourist-end of the island (Montego Bay) and not the capitol city (Kingston). Having just a week for the adventure and having heard tons about Hedonism II as being THE place to visit for an offbeat all-inclusive resort getaway, I signed on.
Hedo II as I gather has been exactly this way for well over 25 years. (Last year they did spiff up the rooms, adding telephones and color televisions.) Beyond the spiffed up rooms, the pools are gorgeous, the beach is clean, warm and inviting, and there are loads of slightly offbeat activities like rock climbing and a circus trapeze as well as more standard water sports like sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. The food is perfect. There’s a mix of American things like pancakes,French toast, cold cuts and Jamaican things like curried goat, jerk chicken and spicy meat patties. There are plenty of salads, tropical fruits and just about anything alcoholic that one would want to drink.
What makes Hedo II unique is its nude beach and welcome mat to swingers in particular and free sex in general. Female guests traipse around the club in lingerie while the more brazen of male guests wear slinky jock straps. Moreover the club encourages free-spiritedness. There are non-stop party games by a super-enthusiastic entertainment staff with everything from strip-tease contests to a well-equipped gym with personal trainers.
As for my version of the authentic Jamaica it’s taking a while to materialize. I arrived yesterday after a grueling night flight from LAX to Atlanta. Barely slept on the flight—I tried to “stretch out” horizontally on two seats, getting comfortable for maybe 10 minutes at a time. Upon arrival in Atlanta, I had to drag my bags (and myself) from one end of the airport to the next (using an inter-airport train for part of the journey) to find the gate for Jamaica airways departures. I sat in a stupor for about an hour (I was still exhausted from a week without enough sleep plus a largely sleepless night) until the Jamaica Airways plane began to board. On board it already felt like Jamaica. Hot reggae music played through the loud speakers and the flight staff was super-cheery. They fed us a standard American airline breakfast and after a little under three hours, we arrived in Montego Bay. I’d say that nearly everyone arriving was a tourist headed for an all-inclusive-package resort. After a brief check-in through customs (the returning Jamaicans had extensive check-ins, in that they were loaded up with difficult to purchase American items), we sorted ourselves out into which resort we were signed up for. I found my way to “Super Clubs” and was loaded into a mini-van along with other Hedo II visitors. Other than not being able to find my name on the guest registry (which was rectified by a simple call to the club), it was the simplest of arrivals.
Our driver was the quintessential “No Problem—Don’t Worry Be Happy” Jamaican. We drove along the coast looking at beaches, countryside, school children wearing cleanly pressed uniforms, local markets, shanty-town housing as well as spiffy tourist enclaves. I was too exhausted to take pictures—I just chatted with the driver and considered what I might photograph if I was more in the mood.
Upon arriving at Hedo, I quickly spotted my girlfriend Irene who then introduced me to her travel buddy April. We had lunch, checked out the nude beach, swam out to a raft, chatted with other guests, lounged in the hot tub and napped in a hammock. Somehow I imagined a bigger place… Apart from the constant super-loud reggae music, IT was fine.
What wasn’t fine was that no instructions had been left regarding my agreement with the manager Richard Bourke to present some polyamory workshops in exchange for a private room. The reception staff could not seem to authorize my private room and I spent hours in limbo—sometimes napping on the beach, other times hanging out with Irene and April in their two-person room. Finally about six hours after my arrival, my room was authorized and I moved in.
While I can be a bit of a slob at home, in my Hedo II room I hung up all my clothes and put everything I’d brought in its place. I napped for a short while and then joined Irene and April for the Friday evening banquet featuring grilled lobster. It and everything else was delicious. After a brief walk on the beach, I found my way back to my room and crashed for almost 12 hours. Apparently there were a bunch of parties, but I was way too sleepy to care.
After hours and hours of much needed sleep I made my way down for a super-delicious breakfast with fresh tropical fruits, fried plantains, eggs, roasted ham, and lox and cream cheese. There were spurts of wind and rain all day. I returned to the nude beach and struggled to swim amidst a stiff current. Irene and I chatted on the beach for awhile and then I warmed up in the nude beach jacuzzi. I wandered in and out of conversations with lots of friendly couples. Some were swingers winding down Lifestyles’ month at Hedo. Lots were from the Northeast—others were in from Ohio, Minnesota, Arkansas, Mississippi and even Alaska. There was also a cluster of lively attractive people from Chile.
The rest of the day got spent eating, napping (still trying to get caught up on lost sleep), wandering around the beach and walking off-site to check out a nearby craft market. Every stall had nearly the same stuff—carvings (with a wide range of artistry), dresses, and tacky looking jewelry.
The evening brought a special-dinner at the Hedo’s Japanese restaurant. My favorites were the shrimp tempura and the live stir-fry veggies, chicken, salmon and shrimp w/scallops.
Afterwards we danced—with other guests as well as with the Jamaican staff. The band played a mix of music—reggae and American pop stuff. At some point a rowdy dance competition began. It felt much like a high school/frat party and I so didn’t want to be there. I imagined if I was more drunk (I’d had only a small bit of sake with dinner), it might have seemed more fun. I felt bored. I began to wonder if there are INTELLIGENT resorts where perhaps there’s high-end comedy…and not so much of this rowdy drinking party stuff.
The day before we’d arranged for a guy we’d met selling stuff on the beach to take us into Negril for a late-night street party for Bob Marley’s birthday. Bob Marley is a major cult figure here in Jamaica—the patron saint of reggae music, his likeness is found in carvings, posters, T-shirts, etc. The party had been rained out (it was storming that night) and our opportunity to get a look at Negril’s nightlife faded away. Irene then encouraged me to drop in on the piano bar. A drunken patron was singing some offbeat lyrics to a pop song, I couldn’t handle another minute of this drunk/stoned resort-scene world. I excused myself and soaked for awhile in a nearby jacuzzi. It was peaceful, but I felt intensely turbulent. I so wanted to escape from this mindless world of silly entertainment and intoxicated people. I wandered towards the beach. A Jamaican man called me over. We talked. He told me he was drawn to me. That I have a pretty face and he’d like to show me a good time. After all, I’d never had a Jamaican man’s bamboo! We chatted about everything from marriage in Jamaica (its quite typical for men and women to produce families together without ever getting married.) I spoke a little about my kind of polyamory—in which I’m free to connect with whoever I choose, but that I very much seek a heart connection. Playing around sex doesn’t hold a huge interest for me. He sort of heard it. Like most Jamaican men who proposition foreign women at resorts (I’ve had many) their basic assessment is that you must have money and obviously you have a pussy. Feeling no particular attraction for one offer over the next, I’ve found myself playing along for a short while and then eventually telling them “no.”
It’s all somewhat reminiscent of being a young woman traipsing around Mexico. Then I was on a quest to understand Mexican culture in every way I could. And for me, sex with Mexican men was all part of that quest. I don’t feel so curious about Jamaican men. Not sure why. Many are stunning. But I suppose I very much need to feel something, too! And my general sense is that if it’s is meant to be, then I’ll know it.
After being gently stroked and hugged, I found my way back to my room. Mostly I was ever so happy that I had a quiet comfortable room to myself!
I awoke still tormented that I couldn’t fit into the Hedo scene—and wondering if I’ll ever fit in anywhere or with anyone. I kept thinking about fun vacations for curious smart people… Of course there are those things—eco-tourism, adventure travel, etc. This just isn’t the spot. I do wonder why Hedo’s motto is be “Wicked for a Week.” Now I don’t consider nudism and free sex to be wicked behaviors. I think of them as enlightened. I don’t think we own each other’s sexuality. And certainly we’re born without clothes, so how wicked can being ‘au natural’ be?
I had another delicious breakfast with Irene and April and then checked email for awhile. Eventually I made my way to the nude beach and chatted with some of the couples I’d met the day before. I felt so engaged and appreciated! Finally some thoughtful conversations! I chatted with a woman from Mississippi about drugs, altered states, and addiction and then with a couple from Arkansas about everything from the popularity of ranch salad dressing is in their state to my suggestions of what they should check out when they go to Thailand. Finally, I stopped feeling so out of place. After swimming at the beach, I headed out to try out snorkeling. The corals, tropical fish and underwater world were quite beautiful, but as I feared, I got seasick. At some point the rocking of the choppy water got to me and I if I’d eaten lunch, I would have surely thrown up.
Upon arrival at the shore, I showered and slept it off. I awoke still queasy—but in search of food, mostly to settle my stomach. The Jamaican jerk chicken restaurant was open and I had chicken and fries with three Black women from the states. I was quite amused as they photographed a Jamaican craft-vendor carrying things on her head—to them she was truly a cultural oddity!
Next I wandered down to several adjacent beach resorts—Sandals (a couples resort) and Beaches (a family resort). I was soon able to put Hedo II into perspective. They all offer non-stop drinks, snacks and presumably delicious meals. And they all have the same silly entertainment—with dancing contests, couples games, etc. Beaches offers a children’s camp, but what I had thought was all unique to Hedo, actually wasn’t. What is unique to Hedo is the nude beach and the laissez faire attitude to sexual freedom. And that uniqueness brings many couples back once or many times a year…
Coming as a single woman to Hedo in particular and Jamaica in general, plenty of hot erotic attention is absolutely available. Foreign women of nearly every shape and age can readily attract a Jamaican sweetie. A hunky member of the Hedo entertainment staff explained that his job is to make sure that the female guests enjoy themselves. In the evenings his job is to be a standby dancer, making sure that every woman who comes to Jamaica for a vacation is invited to dance. To me his job sounded a bit like prostitution. When I questioned him as to how far he goes to please his clientele, he looked into my eyes and proclaimed “whatever you want!” He then qualified that he was not allowed inside guests’ rooms and that if I were interested in his Jamaican bamboo, it would have to be off premises!
I spent much of the day touring the backwoods of Jamaica with Andrae and his cousin Dejuane. I met Andrae a couple of days before while he was selling woodcarvings on the beach. He offered to take me out to his village so I might photograph the process. We drove slowly out of Negril, stopping often for me to take photos of the streets, shops, and then the Jamaican countryside. It rained on and off—and I took pictures of cows, goats and dogs…and then a bamboo canopied street…and of course their wood carving process. They live in the hills above Santa Cruz a bustling town in the St. Elizabeth Parish. After driving some distance off the main thoroughfare, we headed up a very rough dirt road to a community populated almost entirely by Andrae and Dejuane’s relatives. Some had newly built homes while others were quite rundown.
The boys, being about 20, had an infectious enthusiasm. They so want to be successful! Dejuane wants to go to business school…and already at 20 they have the makings of sharp wheeler-dealers. When I asked them where they’ve most like to live, Dejuane said Mandeville (a larger Jamaican city with a college) while Andrae (whose drawn to Rastafarian sensibilities) claimed to be happy living right where he does. Then when I clarified my question and said “anywhere in the world” they both claimed they’d most like to live in New York City. It made sense when I recalled the many Jamaicans I knew when I lived in New York—there are certainly footsteps for them to follow.
As for the problems facing Jamaica they offered that the economy isn’t good—it’s very hard to make a living—and there’s too much crime, especially in Kingston. Jamaica is very dependent on the tourist industry (bauxite/aluminum and sugar are its other main industries) which is a very fickle undertaking. There are only so many niches—and then there’s so much slave mentality with the Jamaican blacks serving the whites of other countries. Nonetheless the Jamaica I saw was a relatively prosperous place. The hotel staff arrived to work in late model cars, the school children were all dressed in spiffy looking uniforms and each carried their supplies in freshly purchased daypacks. Moreover no one looked hungry and no one openly begged for handouts.
I went on the highly touted canopy tour today. It involved a fairly long tour bus ride out to the Chukka Blue Tour site in the mountains north of Montego Bay. From the same site there’s also a white water raft tour (I passed on it hearing that there would be almost no rapids at this time of year) and an ATV tour (also not appealing to me in that it simply involved driving around in an open jeep). The canopy tour involved some hiking and then traversing stretches of the jungle on aerial cables. We were fitted with personal harnessing, helmets and funky smelling leather gloves. Riding across long stretches of the jungle was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever known. We’d whiz along, sometimes at speeds up to 35 mph above rivers and nearly through the limbs of trees. The tour attracted adventurers of all ages—children as young as 8 came with their parents—I connected with a friendly couple from Memphis who swapped picture-taking moments with me. (While traversing the jungle one had to focus his or her entire attention on the ride, making it necessary for someone else to do photography.)
Each time I was told to step off the platform and I viewed the 40-ft. drop I’d feel my adrenaline kick up and I’d consider not jumping…but remembering how fun it was to be suspended, I’d release my fear and dive across. The views of the tops of forest foliage were truly spectacular—to me it was an absolutely not-to-be-missed experience.
Upon return to the hotel I had some late-afternoon jerk chicken on the beach, swam hard in the ocean and then prepared for my talk on polyamory. The hotel had agreed to give me a private room (rather than share with Irene and April) in exchange for me offering a seminar. Despite that the hotel never managed to print out the flyer I’d made, I got a good turn out.
The attendees at my workshop included a network of swingers from Baltimore who readily saw themselves as a polyamorous intimate network. Also attending were a couple from Canada who reported that their country’s law had just been changed to allow poly marriages and a couple from New Orleans who had scheduled themselves to come to Hedo that week to attend my workshop on polyamory. Despite my requests for a LCD projector, the club had failed to locate one and I led a free ranging talk structured somewhat from one of my power point slide shows.
Afterwards Irene, April and several of the single guys they’d been collecting during our stay joined in for a sit-down dinner at the club’s Italian restaurant. The restaurant featured a delicious antipasto bar and wonderfully grilled leg of lamb. With crème brulèe it was fabulous final super. Coming solo to Hedo II was something few of the guys would ever consider doing again. While Jamaica has a reputation for being a place that Western women can readily attract attentive local men, and Hedo’s swingers are forever on the lookout for open-minded bi-women, single male guests may spend way much time alone. As I heard their stories I thought about how ignored I felt in Thailand. There, Thai women (both genetic as well as transsexual) seek Western men (largely from Europe, Australia and North America) for short as well as long-term alliances. I began to ponder why countries such as Jamaica and Mexico so traffic in the beach-boy culture favoring Western women while Thailand, especially, specializes in sex tourism for Western men. Is it religion? Does Thailand’s Buddhism place fewer restrictions on women than the Catholicism and Christianity so often practiced in Mexico and Jamaica? Or is it simply an issue of reputation where stories of opportunities fuel behavior and more opportunities?
I awoke to my final morning in Jamaica with a big agenda. I wanted to try out a personal training session in Hedo’s well-stocked gym, take a bike ride and buy some Jamaican crafts—all before my 1 PM departure for the Montego Bay Airport. I began my workout with a personal trainer from Colorado. He and his wife provide three hours of personal training a day in exchange for staying at the resort. Relative to the other clubs they’ve been assigned to, Hedo II is definitely the one with the most late-night social activities.
The bike ride involved eight other cyclists escorted by a couple of Jamaican guys from Hedo’s entertainment staff. We biked about 40 minutes each way along the beach highway that connects the club to downtown Negril. We got a peek into the rest of Negril’s tourist scene with smaller non-inclusive hotels (including a Yoga natural foods retreat center), car and motorbike rental businesses and loads of vendors. We took a break at a tourist mall that featured store upon store of T-shirts, dresses, alcohol, jewelry and some basketry. The T-shirts, shot glasses and baseball hats were all made in China, while nearly all of the dresses were made in India. There was one local manufacturer of Jamaican dresses (which I patronized) and yes the Appleton Estates Rum (which I also purchased) is made in Jamaica as well. When one of my friends revealed to me that she does her travel gift shopping at her local Cost Plus, it made perfect sense to me. Why stuff your bags with stuff that you can purchase just as cheaply at home?
Upon return to the resort, I made a final trip to the local craft market. There only one of the 30 or so vendors selling island-made woodcarvings of Bob Marley, fish, as well as Africanesque giraffes and elephants could process a credit card. I settled on a fish and rushed back to the hotel to pack. After a uneventful ride to the Montego Bay airport and a non-stop flight to LAX I was home.
Having traveled to Jamaica’s neighbor Cuba in 2003 and many times to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula I feel compelled to draw some comparisons. The same Caribbean Sea, warm afternoon rains and Hurricane systems wash up to their shores. Yet due to cultural, geographic, economic and political factors they’re very different. In Cuba everyone has access to as much education as they seek, while health care, food and housing are distributed to all as well. In Jamaica and Mexico (as well as in the U.S.) there is much stratification in regards to access these basics of life. The impact of tourism has very much stunted the lives of young Jamaican men like Andrae and Dejuane who rather than going to business school live in small villages and attempt to make a living producing and selling wood carvings. They very much sense someone else (first world capitalists) call the shots as to who really controls Jamaica and Jamaican lives. Likewise young Cuban professionals can feel stunted as well. The U.S. blockade limits access to things like the newer cars that Jamaicans proudly drive. And the absence of capitalism greatly reduces the incentive for many Cubans to distinguish themselves. While the hotel food and drink in Jamaica were absolutely delicious, the food served in Cuba’s government run restaurants and hotels was bland and uninteresting. As for Mexico, being across a notoriously porous border, has had its own benefits and liabilities. Many young Mexicans see more opportunities for getting ahead by slipping over the border than in investing in their own communities. Rather than generating local businesses, they’re often inclined to suffer the humiliation of relatively well paid backbreaking work in the U.S.
The morning I left Jamaica, I met briefly with the Hedonism II management and they invited me to put together a proposal for a week of workshops based at their resort. My first submission was an outline that included a workshop discussing Jamaica’s socio-economic place in the Caribbean. Their first response was that for their clientele they would require something more sexual. I thought about Hedo II’s moto, “Be Wicked for A Week” and began to consider the disconnect between how the Jamaican’s view their clientele (devious repressed foreigners seeking a wicked and wild getaway) and MY SENSE of the value of social nudism and free sexuality. Considering that the Hedo II staff never exposes their private parts publicly, I surmised that Hedonism II is a culture unto itself!