Adventures in Jamaica

By: Tom Malone - Summer 2016

Montego Bay, Jamaica - When we arrived at our hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica, we immediately checked the list of watersports that were included at the hotel property for free. We had done all of them before (wakeboarding, paddleboarding, snorkeling, etc.). As we looked down the list, we saw “Scuba Diving” as a complementary water activity, so, of course, we grew excited to try this new water adventure.

Then, we saw the asterisk, which informed us that only certified scuba divers could participate. We were not scuba certified.

So, we double-checked with the hotel’s dive shop. The scuba instructor informed us that we could participate in the dives as long as we were going through their certification course, which would cost 300 dollars per person. After speaking with a British couple experienced in scuba diving adventures, we realized that PADI scuba certification is good for life, and this hotel’s training course was high-quality.

Though it wasn’t in our travel budget per se, we decided to go through their PADI Open Water Diver certification program anyway.

After watching a short film about the dangers and joys of diving, we jumped in the pool with our instructor and a few other prospective divers. Our instructor taught us the basic parts of the “octopus” breathing apparatuses and how to overcome the most likely underwater obstacles (like running out of air underwater).

Then, we walked onto the dive boat. Nervousness coursed through us. After a ten-minute ride out to sea, our instructors told us to suit up. Then, it was time to jump in the water for our first real dive. I took one big step off of the back of the boat. My vision went blank.

When I opened my eyes, the waves chopped at my face. I followed our instructor’s directions and descended slowly, making sure to equalize the pressure on my ears as I dropped below the surface. As I descended, I grew astonished at the fact that I could actually breathe regularly while underwater. A modern miracle.

I saw other members of our crew assembled 40 feet down on the ocean floor, so I joined them. After I figured out my underwater buoyancy, our group swam off into the ocean.

Coral reefs emerged into sight. Big blue fish swam in schools all around us. A jellyfish sat on the ocean floor upside down and fed on something. Then, we approached a break in the coral reef; looking left and right, it seemed like an underwater highway for sea life.

I began to cross into the through traffic of fish schools, when I saw a shadow float toward me. As it came closer, I realized that the massive sting ray was using the highway to reach its next destination. I wasn’t going to be a barrier. It glided peacefully past me.

After 30 minutes underwater, we ascended and emerged near the back of the boat. I climbed onto the boat, tore off my gear, and blabbered in amazement at the new adventure that we had just undertaken.

Over the next four days, we continued to dive through more reefs, caverns, and underwater habitats. The process of becoming scuba certified left us with a desire to progress as underwater adventurers and continue our exploration of the world’s oceans.

Though we spent plenty of time diving on Jamaica's coastline, we took time to explore the inner island and the beauty it exudes.

As our van left Montego Bay, we quickly left the bright, shiny facades of the luxurious resorts and emerged into what we discovered to be the real Jamaica. Our ultimate mission: adventure into the mountains and find Nine Mile, the birthplace and final resting place of reggae legend Bob Marley.

The 1.5-hour drive took us along the coast at first, where we passed tin shacks, massive homes, and homes left unfinished.

The tin shacks stood on small plots of land along the beach. A recent law in Jamaica allows squatters that occupy a plot of land for more than 20 years to take legal possession of that land if they can repay 75 percent of their backed taxes. For now, it seemed that the people we encountered enjoyed simple living and utilizing the ocean for sustenance.

The massive homes that we passed belonged to those with prestigious occupations: doctors, lawyers, and people who had gone to work in the United States and returned to Jamaica for retirement.

The unfinished homes perplexed us until we received an explanation. Jamaican builders only complete portions of homes that they’re paid for; Jamaican banks give astronomical interest rates (about 20 percent, according to our local guide), so people build sections of their homes at a time. Some homes remain unfinished for 10 years while the family still lives in the finished portions.

Though it’s an island, Jamaica reaches elevations nearly 5,000 feet above sea level in parts. The unfinished, single-lane roads that dissect the mountains take travelers past dozens of villages that provide a stark contrast to the mansions along the coast.

We passed multiple communities which featured a bar as the center of the town, surrounded by twenty or so stone shacks. In many places, we passed outdoor tents for Saturday church services; the tents were packed to the edges.

Homes were built using stone, cements, wood, and tin roof materials. Staircases allowed homeowners to walk to their elevated houses (built into the sides of mountains), while stilts allowed some houses to overhang on cliffs. Most homes weren’t built flush, but they stood strong on the mountainsides.

People hung clothes from lines. They sat on their neighbor's’ steps and conversed. They strolled to and from the bar(s) in the center of the town.

We only drove a few miles from one community to the next, but I couldn’t help but feel that each community was isolated. The jagged mountain passes seemed to prevent easy walking between communities. As we drove deeper into the mountains, the feeling of isolation grew.

Still, the smiles on people’s faces and the simplistic lifestyle that we saw (in comparison to American extravagance) appealed to us. Many houses and shacks had personal farms in which they grew enough food to feed their families.

When we reached Nine Mile (currently a Rastafarian community), we saw the same sustainable lifestyle that all other mountain communities demonstrated. We encountered friendly, easy-going people who loved their land and took pride in being Jamaican.