Scoobys job is to make sure the tourists who leap off the cliff into the azure cove at Ricks Cafe come back up for air.
He stands at the handrail leading to the small concrete launching pad and advises, Take two steps, jump off and go in straight like a pencil.
Most of the daredevils return up the stairway for more. A few crash land in the water five stories below, and they pay the price.
Yah, mon, Scooby said with a frown. Knocked unconscious–many times.
The happy-hour crowd that lines the rock walls to applaud the sunset also gives a hand to the noteworthy flops, while snorkelers in the water lead the shell-shocked to shore and sometimes retrieve a wayward bikini top.
Ricks Cafe is a legendary hangout in Negril, which itself came to be known as the party capital of the Caribbean.
After Castro closed Cuba decades ago, Americans seeking an island getaway flocked to Jamaica and the Bahamas. In Jamaica, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios first built the big resorts. On a deserted strip of beach at Negril, hippies and flower children extolled the islands illegal crop by setting up Ganjaland. Stylish resorts such as Swept Away, Grand Lido, Sandals and Hedonism II followed.
But two things happened to dull Jamaicas glow as a top sun-and- surf destination for Americans.
First, competition grew as fancy resorts popped up on the Mexican coastline and on tinier islands. The guy next door was heading to exotic places like Anguilla, Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia and Turks & Caicos.
Second, Jamaicas reputation, always a bit risque with beaches for the nude and the prude, was tarnished by bad manners and bad publicity. Theres poverty in Mexico and on other Caribbean islands, too, but Jamaicas army of pesky peddlers, called higglers, turned off visitors.
Then, with tourism from America already flat and the islands economy floundering, the Claudia incident hit last May like a punch to the gut. An American travel writer, Claudia Kirschhoch, 29, visited Negril. She sunbathed on the spectacular beach, attended a reggae concert, bought a swimsuit–and disappeared, leaving behind her passport and clothes.
She is still missing, but the islands billion-dollar tourist industry is eager to point out that the other 1.2 million visitors who come each year to enjoy the islands mountains, beaches, waterfalls and perfect climate make it back home tanned and happy.
While Americans may be slow to return to Jamaica, others have discovered the bargains waiting there, said David Wallace, owner of a dive shop in Negril. We have a lot of Europeans because the travel agents barter down the prices to almost nothing, he said, and Europeans love to get something cheap.
For a recent six-day tour, the tourist board provided me with a guide, an amiable fellow named Barry Esmie. He knew everybody and every back road on the island, and at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds was an imposing bodyguard and baby-sitter.
He is bald and black and loves to laugh. God only made a few perfect heads, he said. The rest he covered with hair.
A Seventh Day Adventist, Esmie neither drinks nor smokes, the perfect designated driver. He expertly piloted his white 1981 Toyota, with 162,000 miles on it, around the goats, potholes and donkey riders who lurked beyond the blind curves on twisting one-lane roads that barely accommodated two-way traffic.
Our adventure stretched from Montego Bay to Negril, from Negril to secluded Treasure Beach on the south coast and back across the island through its mountainous spine. We spotted the posters printed for Claudia Kirschhochs parents, offering $50,000 for information leading to her return.
I drove them for over a month–to the mountains, to the rivers, to the plains, searching for their daughter, Esmie said. We put up posters, talked to the Rastas in the hills. Very dismal.
Esmie, for one, believes Kirschhoch may be in Cuba, or met with misfortune heading there. She had applied unsuccessfully for a visa to visit Cuba, he said, and rumors are that a white woman left a Negril beach by boat at night.
At dinner one night at Ricks, several Negril business owners discussed how their fate was intermingled with that of the missing American. All agreed it would be impossible for a white woman to be living in the hills without someone spotting her.
Shes alive, I think she will be found alive, said Lisa Richards, head of the Negril Hotel Owners Association.
If she is dead, said Volney Williams, regional tourism manager, we are all dead.
A new highway is being built that will cut in half what is now a 90-minute, bone-jarring ride from Montego Bay to Negril. But the construction has become a symbol of the islands economic frustration. The on-again, off-again proj-ect appears on again–crews were cutting a swath through the forest. But who knows when it will be completed.
Everything is political, who gets jobs, who gets contracts, said David Wallace, the dive shop owner. Companies dont want the headache and the hassle caused by the government.
Despite its problems, there is new investment. We stayed at the Negril Cabins, where an open-air lobby of splashing fountains led to cottages on stilts surrounded by a planted rain forest. You could bird-watch from the balconies in the morning–except for the noise across the street, where the block-long Hotel Riu Tropical Bay is under construction.
Negril used to be a hippie village, Esmie said. People wanted to come and relax and smoke the weed. Then the big hotels came. But you can still get a place for 10 bucks a night. They have different accommodations here. Very down to earth.
I learned just how earthy on my first stroll up Negrils Seven Mile Beach. I was admiring the handsome Spanish architecture of the Grand Lido when I nearly walked into a fat, naked man. I was on the beach at Hedonism II, where swimsuits are optional.
None of the men and women sunning on the lounges or walking along, drinks in hand, looked like the pictures in a recent Playboy feature on the resort.
Negril is a lively place, by day and by night.
Jamaica was a bit late in adopting the environmental policies that protected the reefs around other islands. But a new central sewage system is in place, and a dive master with the nickname Monster at the Negril Scuba Centre promised plenty of underwater action. Two dives for $45, plus $20 for equipment.
Monster was right. We saw a sea turtle, moray eel, spotted eel and barracuda among the residents of two coral reefs. He pointed to a sandy blob on the ocean floor and prodded it with his knife–a scorpion fish spread its winglike fins and revealed itself. Inside a cave, the bubbles from our exhaled air gathered on the roof like shimmering pools of mercury.
From the bottom of the world, we went to the top. Esmie skipped the scuba but with some hesitation took up my offer to pay his $25 tab for a parasail ride.
Fifteen minutes in the sky is a long time, he said. We ignored a beachside hemp dealers offer of $10 brownies. Make you fly higher, mon, he promised.
We were both rookies at sky sailing and laughed nervously when a Bob Marley hit played on the boat trip out: Dont worry bout a thing. Every little thing is gonna be all right.
Launched from the boats back deck on a 600-foot tether, we didnt even get wet. Aloft, the ride was smooth and peaceful, even blissful, like a turkey vulture floating on a thermal.
Parasailing is wicked, mon, Esmie concluded.
From 300 feet up, we saw dark splotches of reef in the turquoise waters and a clear picture of Negrils linear layout. The fine resorts- -Beaches, Sandals, Couples, Swept Away, Grand Lido and Hedonism II– front the beach. Many are all-inclusive–the price of a stay includes rooms, meals and entertainment. Alcohol, too.
These are first-class operations on manicured grounds dramatically lit at night. Guests may be in sandals and shorts, but the waiters wear red bow ties and cummerbunds.
Farther east, the sand beach gives way to rocky shore and the Rockhouse perched on a cliff. A favorite in the 1960s of Marley, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, the Rockhouse has been renovated by a group of Australians into a hip hotel and restaurant, with a cliff- top swimming pool and ladders leading into the waters of Pristine Cove.
Then there are the older, funkier favorites like the Negril Yacht Club, which advertises rooms from $40 up, and the Negril Tree House Hotel, where a computer salesman from Minnesota was soaking up the sun.
Ive been here four times, he said. Give me this beach and a cup of coffee in the morning, thats all I need.
While some Caribbean islands close down at sunset, Negril cranks up.
The beachside reggae bands at Alfreds Ocean Palace, De-Buss and Risky Business sometimes play until dawn. Close Encounters and Compulsion are what Jamaicans call go-go clubs and Americans call strip joints.
A visit to the Negril Crafts Market was surprising. Each vendor invited prospective customers into his hut to look at the carvings, colorful shawls and other merchandise, and merchants did little badgering.
Esmie explained that vendors now are required to get licenses from the government-run Tourism Product Development Co. They pay $50 to attend a two-week course that teaches them how to deal politely with foreigners.
Not only higglers, but taxi drivers, hotel bartenders, anybody who works in the tourist industry, he said. If youre not certified, youre out.
He said the pressure is on the marijuana dealers who roam the beaches. Most of the resorts have security guards at either end of their strips to quietly ward off strolling hemp salesmen. But we could sweep the beach by the trailerload, Esmie added.
Part of the problem, he said, is with the visitors, who act as if marijuana is legal in Jamaica. Its not. On the day before I left, three people were busted at the Montego Bay airport, including a young Canadian man boarding a plane with two kilos of ganja strapped to his chest. Jail is a lousy spot to spend Christmas.
From Negril, we headed to the south coast. The route was dotted with brightly painted roadside stands where women sold freshwater shrimp and fried fish. Schoolyards were full of boys in khaki shirts and pants and girls in starched white blouses and blue jumpers. Junked cars lined a mountain road that led to YS Falls, where I swung from a rope into a waterfall pool that glowed as if it were illuminated from below.
Ginger lilies, blood red, bloomed along the road. The large tree with orange blossoms brightening the mountainsides was aptly named Flame of the Forest.
As we entered the Southfield area, the forests gave way to fields. Impressive stucco houses, most painted white or pink, stand on the hillsides behind wrought-iron gates. This area here is the breadbasket of Jamaica, Esmie said. They grow tomatoes, onions, scallions, watermelons, cantaloupe, thyme.
These are farmers, mon. Every year, they add a little more to their house. Everybody in Jamaica respects these people.
At the end of the road was Jakes, a resort in the tiny fishing village of Treasure Beach. Jakes, which is named for a long-gone parrot, is the creation of the Henzell family. Perry Henzell produced and directed the 1972 reggae cult movie The Harder They Come. His wife, Sally, was art director of the movie and the architect for Jakes. Their son, Jason, runs the resort.
Jakes is a quirky compound of cottages painted red, blue, green and pink. There are niches in the stucco walls for art, and an arbor of branches shades the small dining patio. The pool recycles seawater, which trickles back out to the beach, and the three-stool outdoor bar serves champagne by the glass. The bedrooms are open to the sea air. The Abalone suite looks like a Moroccan castle with a domed ceiling embedded with colored bottles. In the morning, sunlight flashes rainbow colors on the bed.
There is no hassle, no hustle, no pampering, no room service. The clients love it. Its a mix of Mexico and Europe, said a tourist from London. Fantastic.
On our last evening, my burly companion and I pulled two wooden chairs to the rock wall overlooking the small beach at Jakes. He sipped a root beer, I had a Red Stripe. We stared as the setting sun painted the sand, surf and sky rosy red before dipping below the horizon.
Its like a big ball of fire dropping into the sea, Esmie said. Theyll be clapping and cheering at Ricks right now.