“Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”
As I eagerly anticipated my first weekend trip out of Kingston I came across the above quote on my friend Ali’s blog. It so nicely encapsulated the intent of my planned weekend way – two nights and two days in Ocho Rios. I left my computer at home in my bedroom, turned off my iPhone, and just went, planning to spend the weekend learning to celebrate the glory of being alone and to do a little personal re-calibrating.
The truth is, I’m not very alone in Kingston – I have a roommate, colleagues, hundreds if not thousands of people passing me on the street and especially at the bus terminals, and yet I have been lonely at times – often over-peopled, but not necessarily connected. I am someone who loves my solitude, but too often I allow myself instead to experience loneliness. That was so not what this weekend was about.
I caught Jamaica’s pride the Knutsford Express Friday afternoon immediately after work. I had hoped to catch an early enough bus to make the trip in daylight, but too many other people had the same idea. Ocho Rios is only 83 kilometres from Kingston, but because so much of the island is mountainous it takes over 2 hours to get there. In a comfortable, air-conditioned bus, those two hours are pleasant, as long as you don’t look out the windows. I decided against the front seat for just that reason but I still bit my lip and sucked my gut in from time to time as the road narrowed and twisted.
Parts of the journey are on a modern, wide, four-lane divided highway with wide shoulders. Parts of it are very much not that. Through Fern Gully – a very steep jungly mountain area immediately surrounding Ocho Rios – the road is dug so deeply through the mountainside that in daylight almost all the light is blocked. On the way into Ochi Friday evening the driver had to stop frequently, flash his lights and honk to warn oncoming traffic. At one point traffic had to back up to make room for us to pass. Leaving in the bright of day this afternoon it turns out that portion of the drive is very brief, but it sure didn’t feel like it on Friday.
Ocho Rios is on Jamaica’s North Shore, and is one of the three main tourist areas on the island (Montego Bay and Negril being the other two). There are several less touristy areas I hope to visit over the next 4 months, but for my first solo foray I thought a known entity would be a good call. And, since the point of this weekend was all about quiet, beach, water, and me time, I looked for accommodations that were less likely to attract the party crowd.
On the recommendation of a friend and about 200 (admittedly very mixed) Trip Advisor reviews, I booked at the Silver Seas Hotel – a lady who may be showing her age but who still retains some semblance of her former glory. As I was told repeatedly and by a number of sources, the Silver Seas is the oldest hotel in Ocho Rios. It must have been spectacular in the 1950’s – I could picture Don and Betty Draper having a very drunken holiday there. The real selling point for me was the promise that every room offers an ocean view. I had a low bar, to be honest – beach, no reports of bed bugs, affordable. I went with my eyes open. I was not expecting Sandals Royal Plantation. I was also not paying for Sandals Royal Plantation (a weekend there costs more than US$8,000 … and I expect you have to give your personal butler a hefty tip on top of that). There is no way that price rewards them with any better view than I had!
Arriving late, tired and hungry, I was pleased to go straight to my cavernous room to freshen up. At 20 x 13 with a vaulted ceiling, completely private 10 x 13 balcony, and full bath, I really felt like I should have had 4 more people with me. Unfortunately, when I checked in the clerk didn’t mention that the kitchen was about to close so by the time I went down for supper I had to ‘settle’ for Appleton’s and ginger beer. Luckily, I had half a tube of Lay’s Stax in my suitcase along with about 7 peanut M&Ms in my bag – a dinner of champions. Saturday morning breakfast more than made up for the lack – 3 egg veggie omelette + bacon + hashbrowns + juice + coffee all for under JM$10,00 including tax and tip.
The smartest thing I did was book a snorkeling cruise right after breakfast. I didn’t have the full brochure – just the hotel staff’s word that this was the cruise I was looking for – and they were so right! The Cool Runnings (yes, super cheesy name) cruise crew offer a fun, safe, four and a half hour cruise with a totally unbeknownst to me bonus – it included a guided climb up the Dunn’s River Falls! I can’t imagine a more perfect outing for me! Snorkeling my first coral reef, adventuring through crisp fresh water, and then a cruise around the bay with dancing, rum punch, and laughs. It was incredible.
When my fellow cruisers found out I was travelling solo I was quickly adopted and taken care of throughout the day. It’s possible I even made more ‘friends’ than I would otherwise. A mom whose husband was staying aboard with the baby was my snorkel buddy. I danced with three young women from Washington, DC who were having a girl’s weekend, and I was safely accompanied up the falls by a fabulous Polish-Canadian couple and equally lovely couple from Minnesota (climbing groups walk holding hands for most of the climb as a safety precaution).
The only mis-judgement of the afternoon (okay, I admit the bikini was questionable, but it was on my list of things to be daring about) was that the rum punch was made with over-proof rum, so my three-drink plan was a bit … miscalculated. What I really appreciated though was that they don’t serve alcohol at all until all of the water activities are complete – and then the drinks are poured, the music is turned up, and dancing on the deck accompanies the bay cruise. And oh, the dancing. So cheesy. So fun. So long-awaited!
I should have hung out in the hotel bar Saturday night. There was lobster grill & live music and it sounded like such fun, but the afternoon had taken so much out of me that I stayed in & listened to the music from my bed with a cold facecloth across my back (apparently I am not yet skilled in the art of applying sunscreen to my own back). I probably would have had a better overall impression of Ochi had I had the gumption to participate in Saturday night’s festivities – I was just tired of pushing myself to be brave or adventurous at that point. Sometimes being the only single, even if those around you are buying their companionship, sucks.
In fact, it’s the sex tourism aspect of Jamaica (so much more visible in the tourist areas, and apparently a known element at my hotel), that detracted most from my weekend (or second most, but c’est la vie). There is an unspoken assumption in Jamaica, but especially in Ocho Rios, and apparently especially at the Silver Seas Hotel, that a woman travelling on her own must be in want of what is euphemistically called ‘a date.’ I have a lot of mixed opinions of this practice, despite being generally taking a live-and-let-live approach to life.
It impacted my weekend, however, because I couldn’t take 20 steps outside the hotel (or linger in the lobby for that matter) without being asked if I was lonely, or if I’d “found what I was looking for,” or if I wanted a date. Men in Kingston yell out all the time – frequently things of a ‘hey have my baby’ nature. This was far beyond that. Coming back from the Crafts Market in broad daylight this morning I was followed for more than 2 blocks by someone who was just steps behind me and chattering at me the whole time things I won’t share here. I just kept shaking my head and saying ‘No man.” I finally ducked into a corner store.
I like that I’m someone who travels solo – both the experience of it and what I think it means about me. It’s not that I’ve not been hit on in other places – one of my favourite stories is being proposed to by a supposed Cameroonian diplomat at MoMA. It’s just that this was much more creepy than any of that. Each interaction, however brief, I was left feel like a very soiled money bag, and attempting to avoid the interactions was exhausting.
I don’t want to be someone who sticks to tourist activities out of fear or discomfort. I am truly interested in getting to know the many sides of Jamaica. I’m just not sure how often doing that will mean weekends like this. It was a learning experience. I had a lot of fun. I met some great people (the staff of the Silver Seas more than make up for the peeling paint!). But I may have to consider other ways to adventure.
PS – More photos coming soon – I bought a disposable waterproof camera for snorkeling and Dunn’s River Falls. So odd to have to wait for pictures to be developed! I also bought the climb DVD but I’m not sure live-action of me in a bikini is really good public viewing – we’ll see if I can edit the video so you get a sense of what fun it was.