NEGRIL, Jamaica — The first thing to put to rest is the matter of drugs and nudity. Is it true what they say about Negril? That drugs are rampant, that marijuana is smoked in cigarettes the size of Havana cigars, that the rough wooden signs advertising "mushroom tea" refer to something considerably more potent than a health-food brew?
Is it true that the small scalloped beaches harbor females as naked as the day they were born and that the local youths who paddle their dugout canoes into these coves have something else on their minds than selling coral?
Is it really true that Negril is a final refuge for those aging flower children who were physically unable to make the transition from yippie to yuppie?
Or is it all an overblown myth, a cynical hype, a press agent's fiction invented to lure the gullible tourist to this island instead of one of the dozens of others?
It is all true.
It Started on a Whim
I first visited Negril on a whim. Waiting at the Montego Bay airport for a plane to New York, I saw a long-haired young man with a scraggly beard and ragged shorts--nothing more. Something told me he was going to the beach on the western tip of Jamaica that was sometimes mentioned as an afterthought by travel agents who had booked previous vacations to the island.
I approached timidly and asked. He was going there, and in the friendliest fashion offered me a lift and his services in finding one of the rooms that he assured me were plentifully available in native shacks.
I demurred, but something stirred in me and instead of taking my flight home, I impulsively hopped a propeller-driven shuttle, and 45 minutes later was walking barefoot, luggage in hand, on a miles-long beach with palm trees on my left and the Caribbean on my right.
Not far from the airport were two attractive beach-front hotels, but I felt somehow, that they weren't for me. Beyond stretched untouched sand and vegetation, broken here and there by tiny wooden houses tucked among the trees.
Hotels and Huts
I walked several miles, leisurely, carelessly, sensing that this was going to be all right. I saw other hotels, not large, a few clusters of huts, and I stopped along the way, looking for the one that was waiting for me.
Behind a large sign a white frame house sat back near the road, while on the beach was a two-story structure made of tree trunks and branches, a sort of island log cabin. I passed it, then doubled back.
At the house a gentle young woman showed me rooms to let and then led me to the hut where I found a small square space with a bed, a table and a kerosene lamp. Down a path was a shower and toilet. Ten paces in the other direction was the sea.
It was $5. I took it.
That night I sat on a chair at the edge of the water. I saw, far away along the beach, occasional fires and house lights, scarcely brighter than stars in the pitch-black sky. The breeze was just above cool, not quite warm, and pushed at me softly.
There was nowhere to go, utterly nothing to do. I was the loneliest man in the world.
Bland Vegetarian Stew
Next morning I walked the beach until I met a woman carrying a basket from which she sold me fresh-baked banana bread, and oranges to wash it down. At lunch some dreadnoughted Rastafarians supplied me with a bland vegetarian stew they were cooking in a pot over a driftwood fire.
The rest of the day I explored, modestly. There was not much to see, and besides, my program precluded any untoward expenditure of energy. I stayed as long as I could, I think it was three days, and went home.
I've returned several times since that first visit. I've stayed at the Silver Sands where the showers sometimes worked, at the T-Water before it exploded in size, at the Sundowner in a room overlooking an immense bougainvillea that blazed with color, the waking sight every glorious day.
I have eaten in the Tree House where the food is dreadful. I have eaten at outdoor barbecues where old Jamaican women broil chicken and ribs and the food is dreadful. And I have eaten at the Coral Cove, a beautiful stuccoed hotel set in a gorgeous grove of palms and eucalyptus trees. The food was dreadful.
And still I come back.
Sun and Germans
It is not for the drugs; drugs are not my scene. It is not the nudity, although I certainly don't object. I once joined a charming European family, parents, grandparents and children, in a cross-cultural seaside conversation. Yards of skin, including mine. Besides, wherever there are sun and Germans, there is nudity, and there are sun and Germans everywhere.
It is something else, special to Negril, that exerts this pull: a laid-back ease, a luxurious torpor that seeps into your bones and stops the clock until before you know it, you feel as if you've been hit with a velvet mallet. There may be some who manage a fairly high level of energy but they are few, and they are assuredly not Jamaican.