Jerked Around in Jamaica
I’m changing my relationship status on Facebook, because as of today, my relationship with Jamaica is a bit complicated.
Every week, our cruise ship docks in Montego Bay, Jamaica. For those of you who haven’t been, Montego Bay is a very divided town, in my opinion. Just a few meters from the beach lies a dilapidated city filled with faded, colored buildings that, I imagine, were once vibrant businesses. A walk along the main road to the beaches will take you past makeshift camps for homeless people, and an amoeba army of taxi drivers trying to out-bid each other, and sell you on a four-hour trip to the other side of the island. And then, tucked away behind high walls, fences, and stone-faced security guards, lie some of the most tranquil beaches the Caribbean has to offer. Sandals resort snatched up prime real estate, and flanked by luxury condos and vacation homes, it occupies a piece of Montego Bay that appears completely inaccessible to the average visitor, let alone Jamaican resident. To me, Montego Bay is a town of contradictions. Incredible wealth barricaded by walls high enough to block out reality. Sidewalks and streams littered with trash, that line the way to romantic, white sand beaches.
It’s just, well, complicated.
But I’m an actor, and drama excites me. I want to discover the gems of this complicated town, and find out what’s going on “backstage”, if you will. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel safe to do that alone in Montego Bay, so I enlisted an adventure buddy for the day, my fellow singer (and former musical museum guide in Norway), Jonas.* After scouring the web for an authentic jerk joint, I found our main attraction for the day:
Rose Hall Great House
Nestled on a hilltop with panoramic ocean views, Rose Hall Great House is a restored sugar plantation, and museum of sorts. At one point, 2,000 slaves worked the over 6,000-acre plantation, owned by rich, white British traders. But what makes Rose Hall unique is its twisted history, thanks to a voodoo-loving, demonic gal named Annie Palmer.
Should you want to know more about this picture-perfect haunted mansion, you’ll have to buy a tour. And this is where the Jamaican contradictions kick in again. Because Rose Hall is in the middle of nowhere, and only authorized taxi drivers can take you there. Cue the fifteen-minute ordeal of negotiating with drivers, walking away in disbelief from those wanting to charge $120 for the 25-minute trip, and eventually getting into a beat up Toyota with a guy who hopefully has a conscious, and promises to get you there for $20 per person. (Our taxi driver, Garey, turned out to be a great guy.)
Upon entering the gorgeous grounds of Rose Hall in Garey’s chariot, Jonas and I tried to start snapping a picture of the commanding limestone house.
“Excuse me, no pictures. You need to go buy a tour.”
Well good morning to you too, unpleasant lady holding a mysterious college-ruled notebook filled with names. We obliged, went into the office, and inquired about the tour of the house.
“$25” says the *slightly* more friendly guy behind the gift shop register. At this point, it’s safe to say Jonas’ and my eyes became the size of Jamaican coconuts.
“Is there a discount for crew members of the cruise ships?”
“Old people discount? Poor people discount? Discount of any kind?”
Listen, with the taxis, I get it. Jamaica is an island and everything, including gas, needs to be imported. But I’m used to conveniently located countries that encourage historical exploration and the quest for knowledge. I’ve paid a few bucks to gaze for hours at masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve seen the trendiest modern art installations, without spending more than time waiting in line, at MoMA’s “Free Fridays.” And while I don’t expect Jamaica to be offering tours of Rose Hall for pennies, I struggle to believe that $25 is a fair price for this attraction. But we’d paid for the cab fare, Garey was patiently waiting in the Toyota, and we had nothing but time. So I laid my credit card down with a heavy sigh, and held out my arm for a gray wristband that would let me on to the haunted grounds.
Jonas and I were quickly paired up with our tour guide and off we went, up the tree-lined path to the main house. As I raised my camera to snap a picture, I was quickly stopped by a young woman with a blue polo and a large Nikon.
“You can’t take a picture here.”
As a person with a blog, photos make up a large part of my excursions (and I refuse to use photos that are not my own) so I asked a few questions about this particular rule. Turns out, you can’t take a photo with a person standing in front of the house. Instead, the staff of Rose Hall will take one for you, and sell it to you for twelve dollars. It’s the year 2019. Five year-olds are running around with 12 megapixel cameras on their cell phones. This is a stupid rule.
(But I accepted it and continued inside the house to start learning about Annie Palmer.)
My oh my, what a crazy woman she was. Adopted by her nanny who practiced voodoo, Annie Palmer grew up to marry into a rich man’s fortune and proceeded to kill him, and her two subsequent husbands, all the while torturing and killing her slaves, when they weren’t locked in her basement dungeon. To keep things interesting, the “White Witch” as she was called, also kept a slave lover, which eventually led to her downfall, and murder.
Oh, here’s a fun fact
The cheerful Disney tune “Whistle While You Work” stems from enslaved waiters being forced to whistle on their walk from the kitchen to the dining room, to ensure they weren’t eating the food they were supposed to be serving. Guess who made her slaves whistle every single day?
Miss Annie Palmer.
The house itself was gorgeously restored in the 1960s and is adorned with stunning wallpaper, gorgeous antique furniture, and several surprising pieces donated by Johnny Cash, a part-time resident of Jamaica, and neighbor of Rose Hall. In the formal dining room, you can see the box where Annie kept her knives locked away, as she didn’t trust any of her slaves around sharp objects.
Our lovely and accommodating tour guide told us everything about Annie Palmer’s terrifying reign over Rose Hall, even taking us to the balcony which Annie was known to push people over, just for fun. The entire Rose Hall Great House is seeping with stories, and walking along the creaking wooden floors, you can feel the uncomfortable weight of what the walls have seen.
After a walk around the well-manicured grounds, Jonas and I rejoined Garey for our taxi ride home, with a quick stop at the jerk joint I’d read about (Go to Scotchie’s. Order “festival.” Just do it.). As we drove along the busy streets of Montego Bay, passing abandoned hotels, and street vendors hawking fresh coconuts, I tried to piece together my thoughts on Jamaica. The scenery is amazing. The beaches are beautiful. The accents are soothing and could lull any child (aka me) to sleep. But to me, Jamaica is a land of “buts.”
The people can be exceptionally friendly. But if you’re a white tourist, you’ll be on the receiving end of the people whose sole interest is trying to sell you weed (And they don’t give up easily). There are plenty of taxis to take you on whatever excursion your heart desires. But they charge per person, not per distance, and negotiating a fair price for both parties involved can seem like an impossible task. And Rose Hall Great House is an incredible place to spend an afternoon. But you have to navigate the way there, abide by a few ridiculous rules, and take all of the information with a grain of salt. Because, as it turns out, a quick Google search will tell you that much of the twisted, maniacal story of Annie Palmer’s reign over Rose Hall is fiction.
So just like Jamaica, Annie Palmer has some well-kept secrets. And while I may never find out the whole truth of this strangely enticing country, I will go down trying.
*I know that “it’s not safe to walk alone as a woman” is a blanket statement that may get tossed around too easily in the travel world. And while I’ve has many interactions with kind, lovely people here in Montego Bay, it’s my personal opinion, and gut feeling, that I don’t feel comfortable traipsing through unknown nooks and crannies of Jamaica alone.