OCHO RIOS, Jamaica – Ah, a trip to Jamaica. White sandy beaches, all inclusive hotels. Bob Marley, Rastafarians, ganja.

When we decide to go to Jamaica, our family and loved ones are always ready to remind us to be careful, that there are dangers and violence, and that hygiene levels are not the same. Jamaica vacations actually deserve some of these warnings: only a few years back, in 2005, the country had the highest murder rate per capita in the world.

Then, in 2010, urban warfare broke out in Kingston. The United States of America had asked Jamaica to emprison “Dudus”, the drug kingpin. Although the man worked mainly in the world of drug trafficking, he also helped a great deal around his neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city, and fed and educated young people. When his henchmen heard that they were coming for their boss, they turned the city into a hellish hurricane of tears and blood. Twenty police stations were torched; the army hit the streets; more than 500 were arrested; over one hundred deaths. After a month of violence, “Dudus”, whose real name is Christopher Coke, was behind bars.

This man’s name, who had the perfect name for the job he held, remained stuck in my head when I rode in the taxi from the airport to the hotel.

A Trip to Jamaica, as Best as Possible

Ocho Rios is a port where cruise ships stop. The main street, on the edge of the sea, is constantly full of people. The music is loud, all the time; cars with loudspeakers on the roof shout advertisements; and as soon as I get off the taxi I’m immediately assailed by vendors of all things, legitimate or not. The first wants to sell me a necklace made of varnished wood – “no, thank you but no” – the second puts a small bag of unidentified powder in my hand – “it’s for you, ya man, a gift, there man”,  “no, thank you but no ” – then a third takes me by the arm and tries to lead me in a direction – “no, thank you but no.” Caught in this whirlwind of harassment – in broad daylight – I finally get to the middle of the handicrafts market. “Ya man, come and look at my stall, nice things, I make them all myself, ya man.” For a minute, I’m surrounded by six salespeople explaining me all the virtues of a tribal mask, a Bob Marley t-shirt or a horrible pink skirt. Fast, it is time to escape this evil place.

Fortunately, a trip to Jamaica is not only the beach, or only drugs. For proof, there is the food. And there’s nothing better than to visit the local market to know what is good. Fortunately, it is two blocks from the busy main street.

Fruit is in abundance. There are several that I have never seen: the “Jamaican apple” (which tastes a bit like a mix of an apple and a tart pear), the naseberry (which tastes almost like brown sugar), the starapple (honeyed and floral) and a sort of mini super-sweet mango.

There are also, of course, bananas and plantains, papaya and tons of fresh coconuts. There is a man who roasts peanuts he picked himself – surprise, there’s up to seven small peanuts in one shell!

I must therefore try everything.

That’s when I finally understand how life must be for Jamaicans. A deep breath, a second, and a piece of papaya, peeled by the lady who picked them in her backyard. Delicious.

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