Jamaica, the 'no problem' land

Travel Weekly associate editor Margaret Myre and her husband Bill, cruising on Carnival's Inspiration, chose the Mountain Valley Rafting Tour as their shore excursion in Jamaica. Her report follows:

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica -- He plucked a flower from a tree, and I put it in my hair.

He was Floyd, our poler and guide on Jamaica's Great River, site of one of two bamboo rafting trips offered at this port of call to passengers on Carnival's Inspiration.

Floyd, articulate and genial and not more than 20 years old, has it made.

Like all young people of Jamaica, he finished high school. That's the law here.

He has a job in the tourist industry, his pay a percentage of the proceeds and whatever tips he receives from passengers.

In the pecking order of river polers, he is a rung up.

If we'd give him enough of a tip, say $20, he said, he could pay one of the young men who hang around the termination point to walk the raft two miles back upriver, against the current.

He had plucked a flower from a tree and I had put it in my hair, so we tipped him $20. The last we saw of Floyd, he was jumping into the back of a pickup truck for the ride upstream.

On the periphery, literally, of the river-rafting business were the vendors who set up shop along the banks, their only overhead a cooler and an inventory of beer and soda.

In the midst of the action, literally, was Rupert, middle-aged and bare-chested, who earned his living wading into the cool, rock-sprouting waters, hawking handmade bamboo replicas of the two-seated raft on which we were perched.

We bought one for $3, and I wonder now why we didn't buy them all.

Minutes later, I gave the raft away to 3-year-old Amigo, who was wading in his underwear, waiting for his mother to give him a bath.

I called to the child, and he approached us, smiling, holding three snail shells he had plucked from the water.

His mother said it was his birthday, so we gave him some money, which did not seem to impress him at all. His eyes lusted after that miniature raft, but he did not ask for it. So I gave it to him.

He handed me his shells, and I put them in my bag.

These people are poor, incredibly poor by U.S. standards.

But living in an agricultural society, where the climate provides lush vegetation and red passion flowers, like the one I wore in my hair, and surrounded by blue waters filled with delectable fish, nobody starves and people seem actually happy.

People like Floyd, Rupert and Amigo live in the mountains near the village of Lethe, where this concession is located and where 75% of the homes have no electricity or running water.

Most of the women come to the river to do their laundry. When we spotted the first such woman, crouching low on a boulder in the river, we thought she, too, was selling something.

But she was washing clothes, the light items first so she could lay them out to dry in the cool shade of the river while she scrubbed the heavier items. Those, we were told, she would hang out at home in the hot Jamaica sun.

It gets quite hot in Montego Bay, sometimes as hot as 110 degrees, but there's low humidity.

It was refreshing on this river, where the idea for using rafts to float people down its eight meandering miles came from the late screen actor, Erroll Flynn, who owned a home here. Flynn outfitted the rafts, previously used to transport bananas, with a bench seat for two to entertain his guests.

There are two spots in the river where rafters can swim. Not having been told that in advance, no one wore bathing suits.

The trip to the Great River is a white-knuckle bus ride 30 minutes into the mountains on a narrow, winding road from downtown Montego Bay, where officials are upgrading for tourism by adding sewers and underground communication lines.

They're proud of their communication system, said our motorcoach guide: Visitors can use credit cards to place telephone calls and send e-mails from retail stores, most of which, it appeared to me, were owned by non-Jamaicans.

But communication -- like electricity and medical care -- is too expensive for most of the people of Jamaica, the largest English-speaking island in the Caribbean.

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