Folks up-to-no-good can be found at any turn, yet millions of tourists land on Jamaica’s shores all year round without incident.
This is not some corporate theme park where every precaution will have been taken to ensure your safety. The island does get bad press for criminal activity in some places, but any serious trouble or ‘street justice’ tends to be between locals or rival gangs (and quite a few taxi drivers) so visitors are rarely affected. Even so, keep your peepers peeled.
In reality, you’ve more chance of being bashed on the head by a falling breadfruit.
Watching your back
Petty thieves and pickpockets are common pests in any place. As a stranger in a strange land, you may be at your most vulnerable in areas where large numbers gather: plazas, markets, public squares, or being jostled about in mass gatherings. Be alert.
Take precautions. Try to avoid walking alone, especially at night. If you choose to wear an expensive watch or jewellery, flash your wallet, or direct attention to your phone when out and about, you become a magnet to the eyes of sneaky thieves. If you really must dangle your shiny bits, do so discreetly and/or keep them hidden. Backpacks are not advisable, wear shoulder bags to the front, and stash your cash and cards in a concealed money belt around your waist.
An increased police presence is evident where tourists gather, a reassuring sight around the cruise ship jetties and plazas of the west end of Ochi, though not so reassuring elsewhere. Remember that many Jamaican police officers are armed so you would be well advised to keep out of mischief.
As a tourist you are unlikely to be harassed by police apart from the odd time should a minibus in which you are traveling be stopped at a roadblock and the passengers frisked. And really, unless you are in the habit of hiding a machete down each trouser leg, there is nothing to fear.
A JAMAICAN POLICE ‘WHO-BE-WHO’
The white shirts, red/black caps and red-striped/navy trousered uniforms (see above) belong to the JAMAICAN CONSTABULARY FORCE (JCF).
A light khaki uniform (pictured above also) identifies a JCF OFFICER of HIGHER RANK, from Inspector to Commissioner.
The DISTRICT CONSTABULARY (DC) in pale blue shirts are COMMUNITY OFFICERS whose role is to assist the JCF.
The armed SPECIAL FORCE patrols the streets in 4WDs in full navy blue uniform, M4 rifles and body armour — do not mess with these guys.
Currency and Cash
The currency of the island is the Jamaican Dollar (JMD or J$). Banknotes are issued in denominations of 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 dollars; coins come in 1, 5, 10 and 20 dollars. In some less well-off stores you may receive a few hard candies in lieu of small change — a lovely gesture!
Licensed cambios and banks are accessible in all ‘touristy’ and resort areas. US$ are accepted in ‘touristy’ shops, bars and restaurants.
ATMs dispensing the local currency are widespread. Always be on your guard when using your cards or an ATM. Try to avoid using ATMs if alone or at night — note that cubicles are lockable from inside: always secure the lock for it is not uncommon for lurking opportunist thieves to watch from behind and then suddenly barge in on you.*
*This happened to Wilson late one evening when one ‘known thief’ with the biggest afro in town foolishly chanced his luck. Did this idiot think he would not get caught?
Getting around and about
Large buses are few and far between on the island due to the narrow twisting roads, but copious types of taxi and minibus cover the whole of Jamaica, if you don’t mind a squeeze.
The cacophony of shouting and parping horns where taxis and minibuses gather is not aggression*, just touting for business. Choose an authorized ‘red plate’ PPV (Public Passenger Vehicle) with a driver who is [hopefully] registered and [hopefully] insured should any mishap occur en route.
You will have to ‘belt up’ if you get to sit up front — it is your responsibility should the vehicle be stopped by the Police and you’re not wearing a seatbelt.
*Though a bit of hilarious regular ‘street theatre’ you may enjoy is to witness two taxis screeching to a halt as both drivers leap out hurling “Bloodclaat” abuse at one another, before realising they cannot fight properly in their flimsy sandals. So either they will scurry around looking for a piece of wood or something to use as a weapon, or they just get back into their “Bumboclaat” vehicles and drive off.
Distinct by their black and white checkered strips along the sides of the vehicle, and “Route Taxi” and the destination marked on the front doors. Following an almost set route, they will often veer off, with a squeal of tyres, down tooth-loosening side roads at a passenger’s request.
Fares are remarkably cheap but expect a real squish-fest with eight or nine fellow passengers and chickens on your knee. The car sets off when full so you may have to wait a while till all at once you’re on your way in a judder and a belch of smoke.
You can board anywhere along the route; the approaching driver will toot to let you know if he can shoehorn you in (and what taxi driver ever put passenger comfort before a dollar).
Look for the black and yellow checkers along the sides. Tell the driver where you are bound and enjoy the comfort and solitude of your own private carriage.
This can be pricey however, so be sure to agree the fare with the driver first or you could end up handing over all your holiday rum money. Another word of warning: do not allow other passengers to jump in, especially at night!
Though fares are astonishingly reasonable, this just might be a contender for the most adventurous nail-biter you’ll ever thrill to on four wheels. At the minibus pick-up point, the guy doing the shouting is your friendly ‘loader’ whose job is to ‘sardine’ as many folks as possible (and the odd goat) on board with extra ‘cross seats’ that magically appear in the aisle. Once that minibus door slides shut it’s time to hold on tight.
Prepare to be hurtled away at breakneck speed, overtaking around blind hairpin bends as big snorting juggernauts thunder towards you. The conductor will ask for payment of the fare before you arrive so have a couple of hundred in bills and small change ready in advance — you’ll be far too squashed-in to access your pockets when the time comes.
Again you can board all along the route providing there is a space — the driver may not stop if the vehicle is fully loaded — though, as we’ve noted, they will more than likely conjure up some room among the disgruntled patrons.
You’ll soon pick up the protocol. Just remember that fares go up steeply after midnight and taxis become less frequent, if you’ve the stomach to be out so late.
If you’ve just landed from a cruise ship or off on a hotel-arranged sight-seeing excursion, certified buses (pictured) await to whizz you and your fellow pilgrims of pleasure to wonders untold.
But don’t bother trying to hail one from the roadside, for the driver will ignore you and spiteful folks on board will point at you and laugh.
For a more personal no-fuss tour service, look for a trustworthy private vehicle operator — take our good friend Ainsley for example.
THE KNUTSFORD EXPRESS
If a trip to Kingston, Mobay or Portland in spacious, air-con luxury sounds like a plan, Knutsford Express are the boys. They also chuck in a bottle of chilled water and a newspaper, so you can sit back, enjoy a movie, and feel smug with yourself as you glide down the highways in comfort.
Visit their Website or call into the office at Island Village to book your seat.