Freedom of the Seas: Falmouth, Jamaica

After Labadee, our next port of call was Falmouth, Jamaica. Much less touristic than the ports of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, this port had some promise ab intitio and it did not disappoint.

I watched our arrival from the breakfast buffet, making small talk with some of the other passengers that were drawn to my window to watch the same. The dock extended into the water in a V shape, with a place for two vessels to moor. Another Royal Caribbean vessel was already moored and we were backing up to take our place in the dock’s only other slot.

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My two traveling companions were planning to take the Bob Marley excursion that would last the whole day and take them much deeper into Jamaica. I was planning to spend the day getting to know this little city on foot. Even from a distance, I was surveying the city and my attention kept getting drawn by a tall brick structure that I mistook for a minaret. Curiosity invoked, I decided to proceed towards that tower upon disembarkation.

Upon leaving their ships, cruise passengers are routed through a customs checkpoint where officers run bags through a metal detector. After I had cleared, I went into an office to the side and asked to have my passport stamped. I was told that I can only get a stamp if I fly in and the officers refused to stamp my passport.

After the customs house is a fairly developed cruise port which is largely identical to all of the other developed cruise ports in the Caribbean. The jewelry shops are all of the same chain and they sit amidst trinket dealers and duty free liquor and tobacco shops. At these places, the room card, which is good for all purchases made on the cashless ship, is generally accepted in all the shops along with US Dollars and Euros. I would come back here to wait for my crewmen friends later, but at that moment I bee-lined it straight to the gate and was soon out on the streets of Falmouth.

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Vendors were waiting touting trinkets and tours to those passengers who were adventurous enough to venture out from the security of the port. There would be a few of us seeping out these gates, but the further one went, the fewer fellow passengers one could see unescorted. The transition between the cruise port and the city proper was stark. The aggressive selling and “come into my shop” requests were plentiful along that first street. One has to ignore these people past a point that an American would deem polite, but ignore them you must if you don’t want to be followed and pressed for more time and more examination of yet another fine Jamaican product. By no means do I intend to paint a negative picture here, it is just that if you are not looking to make purchases, it can be nothing short of work to walk 100 feet. The vendors became sparse and I found myself in a downtown square.

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Mentally following landmarks towards that tower, I proceeded down the road and eventually came upon it. It was not a mosque, but rather a Catholic Church. This was actually a common stop for a lot of the tours and I found that some tour busses had arrived before me. With the tourists were the street vendors. Some of the street vendors noticed my uncommon approach and attempted to intercept me en route to sell me some jewelry and music CDs. I told them that I was not interested in buying and ended up walking straight past the church, only snapping a few pictures as I passed.

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I walked a few blocks and then took a right towards the shore again. This path took me past the jail and police station, which was by far the most modern building I saw. Across from the police station was a helipad. Seeing a helicopter out front bearing American numbers, I was tempted to go inside and see if someone there could stamp my passport, but walked on instead.

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Turning left along the coastal road, I passed a rather large compound that was the hospital. To be honest, I was rather shocked to see the hospital as it looked anything but modern. I was expecting, being in the Commonwealth, for a much more modern facility, but instead saw rooms being aired out by open windows and gowns hanging up on clotheslines outside of the extremely run down building. While I have been known to obtain medical and dental care in other countries, I would not be tempted to do so at this facility.

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I then went to the beach to put my hand in the water and snap a few pictures. When I did a man came out of the bushes and approached me. I could not discern a word that he was saying and cannot say if it was English or some other tongue. He exhibited signs of being under the influence of drugs as he just went on and on in his almost angry sounding monologue. I eventually walked on, and he continued to talk to himself apparently without noticing my departure. I walked along that road until the next major intersection and then worked my way back to the downtown area.

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This time I poked my head into a few shops and generally killed some time before I was due to meet my friends at the port. While my other travel companions were hours out on their tour, my crewman friend and his fiancée were participating in mandatory drills onboard the Freedom. We had arranged to meet for lunch and they had promised to show me the best Jamaican patties as well as one of their favourite local eateries. I did not want to be late for lunch.

Our first stop, Tastee, was really close to the port. When leaving the gate, we turned left and pretty much followed the road around, hugging the left side. At the first junction, there was a grocery store-sized strip mall and Tastee was in the middle of it. Behind this building, I would later learn, was Falmouth’s open air market. Inside of Tastee there was a decent queue, of mostly locals and it took a few minutes to place our order. I ordered a cheeseburger patty and I believe a plain beef patty as well. Both were good, but the cheeseburger patty is the one that I’d go back for. There were other items being sold, but I focused on the patties on this visit.

Juici Beef, our second stop, was near the downtown square. This was a smaller shop, but packed nevertheless. Here we met a few of the Freedom’s crew seeking some patties as well. Considering the blend of locals and the ship’s company, I take it that this was a well known and well liked establishment. Here too I had a cheeseburger patty (as one must have a common reference point) and at least one other. It was also very good and I had no complaints.

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Our next stop was Jelly Man, a vegetarian and seafood restaurant. We had heard of this place well in advance as it invoked collective memories of a restaurant in Gainesville. This place was literally a shack. This place was a few blocks from the downtown plaza and was the epitome of hole-in-the-wall. I opted to go against the advice of my friend and I ordered a fish dish which was good, but looking at his vegetarian beef-tips, I do regret not going along with his advice and going vegetarian that day. Overall, I certainly think that this place was worth the visit and I do not believe that you can go wrong with anything you order.

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My friends, oblivious that their picture is part of a larger frame.

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After the Jelly Man, I escorted my friends back to the ship and went on my second solo excursion of the day. I began by going back to the first patty shop and exploring the road at its side. There were a lot of local people in this area, and I was notably the only foreigner. Along this road and peeking down a narrow intersecting dirt road, I saw an open aired market. Without the hint of another cruise passenger around and having no clue about the layout of the market before me, I absolutely had to venture in.

The market, at first glance, was not unlike so many others that I had been in Mexico or Guatemala. There were the standard fruits and vegetables, ready to eat foods, house wares, and tools. As I walked through the labyrinth, people started noticing me. This was to be expected as it was obviously an exclusively local clientele, and I, a white man, was obviously not from around there. This is when things got interesting. Every few minutes, a vendor would pull out a bag of some leafy green substance and would ask if that is what I am looking for.

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It is worth mentioning that, while Jamaica is often associated with marijuana, such product is not legal in all parts of Jamaica. I have heard that there are police checkpoints on the highways outside of its zones of legality in order to curb its movement in the stream of domestic commerce. For the record, in Falmouth it is not legal. Despite the illegality, I could smell it in the market from the moment I entered it and I could have easily purchased some there had I wanted to.

Towards the end of my market tour, a man approaches me and starts walking beside me. He asks what I am looking for and I tell him that I am merely visiting the market and was not searching for anything. He then asks me if I am looking for good marijuana and I responded in the negative. He then says, “ah ha! I know what you are looking for! Look behind you.” I turn to see three rather scary women walking about 3 or 4 feet behind us. “Have you ever been with a Jamaican woman?”

Simply saying “no” often times will not end the conversation in these sorts of situations. In this case it was actually pretty easy as I told him that I was a Muslim and that I do not drink, smoke, or “get to know the local women” and was not interested. I happened to be wearing a tee shirt of the Florida International University’s Muslim Student Association at the time. Of all things, we then engaged in a brief discussion on religion before he was distracted by another business opportunity. As I left the market, I turned around to take a picture of the entrance. The “Jamaican women” mentioned supra are in the centre, wearing yellow, white, and pink and speaking to the vendor under the rainbow umbrella.

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From the market, I walked back through the downtown plaza and on to a small courthouse near the waterfront. Being an attorney, I thought it would be interesting to poke my head in to see the courtroom. So I went in.

A gentleman greeted me at the door and I told him that I just wanted to see the courtroom. As he led me up to the courtroom, I told him that I am a lawyer in the United States. I entered the courtroom apparently minutes after some docket. There were still a few men in a cell in the back of the courtroom awaiting transport back to the jail. The man who took me up there took it upon himself to introduce me to the prosecutor who was packing her files. We spoke for a few minutes and then I walked out into the hall where that same man was waiting for me.

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The man then told me that he wanted me to meet someone else and I followed him downstairs to the mayor’s office. In shorts and a tea shirt and very sweaty, I was introduced to the mayor of Falmouth right in his office! He invited me to have a seat and then we proceeded to talk about local affairs, particularly his vision for tourism development in Falmouth. He wanted to bring more cruise passengers into the city from the cruise port, and was hoping to find a way to ease the contrast between port and city for the tourists. We spoke for a little bit and then I asked if he would be so kind as to take a picture with me.

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After meeting the mayor in his office, I decided to return to the ship. While perhaps I could have milked another hour or so out of Falmouth, it had been an eventful day and I had Jacuzzi time and dinner on my mind. As the Freedom departed, I watched the sunset over the shrinking city of Falmouth in the same seat from which I watched our arrival that morning. We were off to the Cayman Islands.

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I really liked Falmouth. The city as a whole did not cater much to the tourists and I really liked that aspect of it. Walking around, one can get some sense of life in that small town by the sea. I had the opportunity to sample some local cuisine and was able to meaningfully interact with some of the locals. I would go back to Falmouth, but would like to explore a bit more of Jamaica rather than just staying in that one city. Even if I had to stay close, I am sure that I can find things to do and places to explore within walking distance from the cruise port and would go again in a heartbeat.

Freedom of the Seas: A Day in Labadee

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take a cruise on the Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. While I identify as an explorer under Cohen’s tourist classifications, I do believe that a cruise can be one of the best and most economical ways to island hop in the Caribbean.

For better or worse, a cruise ship is the quintessential mass-tourist vessel and many ports of call arrange themselves accordingly. Much to my chagrin, some of the most well established tourist towns that have often sold their cultural soul for the thousands of cruise passengers that visit. That being said, it is not necessary that I follow the masses while in these ports of call. This voyage was fantastic and I greatly enjoyed exploring the places I visited beyond the guided tours and trinket shops.

On this voyage, I had the opportunity to visit a few places that I had never been: Haiti, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, and Cozumel. Our first port of call: Labadee, Haiti.

Of course as I researched this place before the trip, I first read the reviews that past passengers had made. It seems that most people liked to emphasize how safe it was, how it was a resort compound and that all vendors are a licensed and select few, or that all of the food and water was imported from the ship. Of course those statements were not selling points for me.

All of the perspectives seemed to be coming from people talking about how outsiders could not get into the cruise line’s property and that we would have all the comforts of the ship while ashore. I set out to see the frontiers of this property and see if there was any way that I could obtain a more meaningful and authentic experience on Haitian soil. I came to learn that the fence worked both ways.

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At every port, I wake up early so that I can observe the approach.  The approach to Haiti was beautiful and I daresay that it was the most beautiful of all the approaches on that voyage.

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I began my excursion along the coastline. There was a trail to the left immediately at the end of the pier that I followed along the rocky coastline. There were some gorgeous spots along this walk and it was an excellent way to avoid the largely beach going crowds.

This trail let out near a beach which was actually closed at the time that I passed. One lady was being informed of such closure by one of the locals who worked there. I am not sure if this beach actually opened later or if it was exclusively for sunbathing and volleyball. Overhead was the cables for the famous zip line that was being advertised as a highlight excursion on the Freedom. To get to the top of that mountain in order to travel down to the beach via the zip line, it appeared that the passengers were being taken by a truck outside of the compound and along a road that traced the property boundary. If this was the case, it was the only way that one could technically leave the property.

Up in this part was a roller coaster that weaved its way through the woods for a duration of about 5 minutes or so. I did have the pleasure of taking this ride later in the day and it was interesting as it provided some nice views and one could control their own car to speed up or slow down.

As one follows the perimeter of walkable area, one will come across some fence line protecting the employee housing on the property. This fence line lead to an opening where it looked like most, if not all, of the vehicular entries to the property took place.

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A preliminary fence of sorts which provides a buffer from the outside fence along the boundary.

If one crosses the threshold of the fence pictured above, one would see a guard shack and gate to the right and the employee housing to the left. It was well watched and I was not able to leave the property though this entrance.

A little further down the chain link exterior fence, I came upon another point of entry. Here there was a dock as well as a pedestrian entrance. Any crazy thought that I might have had to bribe a boat’s pilot for passage to the local village was dashed upon discovering that this point was also well patrolled by the well-armed Haitian National Police. The picture below is as close as they would let me get to the fence.

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I came to learn here that the fence worked both ways. Haiti allows the cruise line to utilize its own property and to have guests visit, but such allowance does not constitute admission into the country. Meanwhile, the cruise line has an interest in keeping wandering passengers away from dangers both real and perceived. I suppose that not many people would want to visit Haiti as a port of call if they did not feel “protected” from the outside.

This being said, Royal Caribbean does a decent job making one feel like they are not fenced in. The boundaries are largely unnoticed by most passengers who are more interested in their recreational pursuits on the property. I am one of the minority who will discover the limitation.

As I walked back following the sidewalk along the beach, there came a fork in it. The right path going up through a “village” where licensed local merchants set up shops and stalls. This was well patrolled by security who seemed more interested that the vendors were obeying rules.

I ventured in and was immediately greeted on all sides by anxious and aggressive vendors insisting that I just look at their shops. While I looked, they would proceed to place jewelry on me and place things in my hand. I was truly the center of attention and it was work to escape each shop and to walk down that path. I will say that they were willing to negotiate a lot. They were very friendly and extremely helpful, if only I were looking for tourist goods…. One man did almost convince me to purchase a Cuban Cigar (for $7), but I returned to the ship via a different path and ended up not going back for it.

Lunch was served at a few venues on the property. While I adore the ship’s regular fare, I was really hoping for something Haitian. It turned out that we were served American style-barbecue foods made by the Freedom’s galley and served by her crew. After lunch, I transversed the property one last time before returning to the ship.

While it was nice to say that I was on Haitian soil, I did not really feel like it was Haiti. I did not get to make transactions with Haitian currency, try the food, or observe actual life in that country. I would say that Labadee is a great resort and a perfect place to hit the beach for the day. In fact, Labadee had probably the nicest and safest beach of the entire itinerary. As I am not a beach person, I would likely not rush off the ship if I am called to that port again- not for anything against the place itself, but because I have seen all there was to see there within a few hours and there is nothing left to do.

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: The Demonic

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This was inside a rather large chapel to the Santa Muerte along Mexico 85, just south of Nuevo Laredo.

Across all of Mexico, one can see small shrines, tattoos, jewelry, and small knick-knacks honouring this grim reaper figure known as the Santa Muerte. She is often venerated by the underworld and might be regarded as a patroness of drug cartels, hookers, and thieves. Despite this unsavoury following, there is a substantial and possibly growing number of devotees among Mexico’s otherwise law abiding citizens.

While in Nuevo Laredo during my several visits, I found a rather large and open following of the Santa Muerte.  While I never sought out these places, I came across them frequently on the roadsides, in businesses, and on the sides of peoples’ houses. One time, I saw a little shrine at the side of a residence. I asked the homeowner if I could take a picture and he invited me on his property to get a better picture. After I took a picture of the small figure, he showed me a shed beside his house which housed several large figures of the Santa Muerte.

While I consider myself a more intrepid traveler than most, I must admit that these places and that figure give me the creeps. Below are some pictures that I took at a chapel that I randomly happened across on the side of Mexico 85 as one leaves Nuevo Laredo. At this site, there were two buildings on a small property with a large statue of this figure between the two buildings.

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Devotees to this figure leave candles, write prayers, and leave offerings of cash, cigarettes, and liquor. It is interesting to note that, while churches are closed during the day, these shrines are wide open to anyone at apparently any time.

While I did go into the larger of the two buildings, I did not feel safe enough in that place to take more pictures of the exterior of it or the interior of the other building (which had only one entrance and exit). One must be smart and calculate risks, and I am always mindful of possible escapes when I wander into places that I am not expected to be poking around.

The pictures below are from the shrine located within the Zona Rosa.

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At the risk of sounding closed-minded, I have to say that my general impression of this figure and these places is that they are idolatry at its most open and blatant form. The fruits of this devotion are far from enviable and I am weary of anyone who wears this figure on themselves or sets up altars to the same.

While I cannot easily describe the feeling that I got in these places, I can say that it was not a pleasant one. I came, I saw, and I have no desire to go back.