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Jamaica: hustle central with a reggae beat


Walking through Negril Airport at the end of my holiday, there were a few minutes when I thought I might stay after all. I don’t mean I was in love with the place. I mean I got stopped by the drugs police.

The moment I passed through security, they beckoned me over. Perhaps they’d been tipped off to look out for a blonde female travelling alone. I’ll never know. Then the interrogation started.

“Why are you in Jamaica? When did you arrive? Where did you stay? Where do you live? What’s your occupation? Where do you work? Did you already know anyone in Jamaica?” And on it went. I’ve never heard questions fired off so rapidly.

Why me? Had I unwittingly purchased a packet of Blue Mountain coffee which was actually something else? But I’d always been so careful about where I bought any sealed packages. In fact there had been a desperate man hanging around near my hotel, who was willing to sell me a pack of coffee at a ridiculously low price “so the kid can have something to eat”. I gave him some money but didn’t take the coffee- partly so that he’d still be able to sell it, but also because, as I said, I was wary about packages.

Where else could drugs have been concealed? I had an exquisite wooden crocodile, a little over a foot long, hand-carved. It was a souvenir from my trip down the Black River. The crocodiles there (Big George, Little George and Crazy) were so tame that they would actually swim up to the boats, and tourists would line up to shake hands with them. I was at the end of the queue: when it got to my turn, the crocodile lost interest and swam away. Our guide tried to tempt him back with hunks of meat, but it didn’t work. Still, at least I had the wooden version. But what if that was hollowed out, and filled with white powder?

One of the officers said he’d have to take my handbag away for testing. What could I do? I had no reason to doubt his integrity, but no reason to trust him either. That past week, I’d become suspicious of everyone.

One morning I was walking along the seashore in Negril (a place spoiled by thumping music being pumped out from every hotel, when the only sound I wanted was that of the waves, perhaps with some gentle calypso). A woman approached and asked if I’d like to have breakfast at her beach café. I accepted, and enjoyed some very palatable saltfish. While I was eating, she opened up an aloe plant and rubbed its soothing balm into my sunburn and mosquito bites. What a kind lady, I thought.

When I’d finished my meal, she announced that it would be an extra twelve US dollars for the aloe.

“Huh?”

“It’s expensive,” she shrugged.

I doubted it was that expensive. The stuff is cultivated there, for heaven’s sake. I managed to haggle it down slightly, but more importantly, I learnt not to accept unsolicited acts of apparent generosity.

Anyway, I let the narcotics officer take my bag away. Please God he brings it back, I thought. Preferably without planting anything inside.

When he was gone, the other guy stopped interrogating me and started to chat instead, explaining that this kind of thing was part of a joint venture with the British authorities. He seemed friendlier now, but I was still on my guard.

I had, of course, encountered people during my stay who were genuinely friendly. One of these was a Rastafarian taxi driver called Perry Mason (he told me his father was a fan of the TV series). There was also Carlington, who let me sunbathe on the slightly quieter part of the beach where he worked (each part was owned by a different hotel, and the security guards would usually throw you out if you used one of their loungers without the appropriate wristband). And I’ll never forget the teenage porter who dreamed of visiting Africa, and how his eyes sparkled as he spoke of the beloved, yet unseen, continent which he considered to be his true homeland.

But I’d also come across a lot of hustlers and chancers. I’d grown weary of being asked “Where’s your husband?” and the unsubtle propositioning. I’d learnt not to become too familiar in case my friendliness was misinterpreted- and I certainly wasn’t going to relax my guard with someone who was probably about to arrest me. So I just smiled and chatted to him pleasantly about the importance of stopping the drugs mules.

What would I do if they found -or planted- something? How would I cope with a Jamaican prison? Perhaps it wouldn’t be too lonely with the other inmates. A few days previously, I’d stood on the terrace of my hotel on the cliffs, looking out at the lights across the twilit water, feeling isolated amongst the feasting couples and groups around me. Now that was lonely. So I went to chat to the guy over the road who made spicy jerk chicken in what looked like a giant dustbin. The food and the company cheered me up. Prison food, I was sure, would be another story.

And what about prison facilities? In the quirky little hut which was my hotel room, I’d had to unblock the toilet one day with my bare hands as they didn’t have the necessary equipment over at reception. I’d probably have to get used to that now.

I thought of the two vivacious American women, Boston lawyers, with whom I’d climbed Dunn’s River Falls a few days earlier. Higher and higher, the water cascading over us. I could still taste the exhilaration- and the perfect freedom.

The officer came back with my bag.

It was clean. I could leave!

“…And when you come back to Jamaica,” he said, as I started to head off, “get in touch with me. I’ll show you around!”

Good God- do these guys ever give up?

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