Jamaica was Awesome
I would like to dispel some of the fears people have about Jamaica: It was awesome, beautiful, and I had a blast.
Kingston is NOT geared to tourists. There are no bus routes posted, half the street signs are missing, some of the roads are missing from the maps, and there is not always a taxi where you need it. Do NOT rent a car unless you're comfortable driving on the left and have had training as a stock car racer. However, there are also not people hustling you every second like other places I went, where everyone wants to be your "friend" and engage you in conversation so they can slowly suck you dry. In Jamaica, it is much more straight-forward and less slimy. And they understand what "no" means too. Be prepared for a lot of hissing & cat calls if you are a girl, especially a browning or white.
Took a cab from the airport to where I stayed at Valerie Dean's and it was lovely. About a 25 minute walk to New Kingston, 45 to downtown Kingston? Not bad, but it's bloody hot. So it might take three times as long if you stop at every cart for a drink on the way. Met some nice people there that I hung out with who accompanied me to a club & beach party at night. Walked around during the day. Stopped & chatted w/ venders and anyone I met during my walks. If I left my bag open by accident, some kind local would always point it out to me and I would correct the error. Took a public bus to destinations unknown and returned, just for the fun of it. Often ended up lost due to lack of signs and bad directions. Went to the weekend market w/ all the locals and searched for CD's in the shops.
Went to Morgan's Harbor on advice of my travel agent, but it was a little boring, and the only place I got stiffed on beer prices, because the assumption was I am a rich Japanese tourist (I'm not)...I let it slide, because everything else was so cheap it wasn't worth fighting about. The great thing about Kingston was the lack of tourists and lack of tourist places - Morgan's Harbor was about it, so I consider getting stiffed an anomaly. The bad thing about Kingston is I didn't research where the tourists DO go, so if I were to stay a long time, I would need to find such a place at least once - just to get away from my vacation.
Taxi bartering was simple - ask a price, say it's too much, walk away and ask another driver. Any vehicle is like paying for a roller-coaster ride and always an adventure. I don't know how the heck one maneuvers the bus system, especially at the bus park by the market. There must be a central listing of routes somewhere, but I never found it. I put a lot of tread on my shoes. I DID notice ONE visitor info center on the day I was leaving. Oh well, next time.
The streets are gritty and hard in Kingston, and it's true that there is probably a lot of crime. But if your money is properly locked down, odds are no one is going to take anything from you. If you leave your bag wide open, then you're asking for it. Transportation was very expensive. Everything else was extremely affordable. The dancehall clubs in New Kingston were just like in NYC. Very secure and clean. Great soundtrack.
Portland area at Zion Country was gorgeous, lush, and very relaxing. I had Free-I pick me up, and thank God, as the bus ride would have been brutal and it might have taken a dozen illegal taxis. It was lovely and relaxing there, and I'd wish I'd stayed another week. The couple staying next to me loved it so much they changed their last week's plans in Jamaica around so they could stay longer. The photos I have from the country bring a smile to my face. It was nice to watch the community people passing by, and I only had time for one rasta-guided tour to Reach Falls, but it was awesome. Can't say enough great things about Zion Country.
Free-I hangs out w/ you and gives you all the local flavor you could want, as well as hooking you up with parties, nature tours, and it was nice to just hang out at the corner bar too and watch the community pass by.
To answer some questions, I am an asian female w/ an afro, and was traveling solo. I had a very secure and stylish little bag that was difficult (even for me) to open which strung across my shoulder that has steel cable in the handle. I tried hard to not look like a frumpy tourist in tech fabrics and hiking gear and dressed in what I assumed girls in Jamaica would wear. (I was right on about the clothing, but mine were either not chintzy enough OR not expensive enough) That and some rock star sunglasses and I walked the streets like I owned the place. I truly believe being confident makes all the difference in the world. Also, unfortunately, light skin is given preference over dark skin, and asians are exotic, so I really was given the red carpet treatment being all of the above.
The situation in Jamaica is grim, and the culture is messed up, but the people are warm and friendly, and I always felt safe in the daytime and was lucky to run into people I could hang out with in the evening.
As for practical advice, I'd say when you see a bottle of water - BUY THREE OR FOUR. I was always dehydrated, and I rarely drink water but I was sweating off double my intake. When you've got the runs, DON'T TAKE IMMODIUM. It shuts you down so much it takes days to get back to normal and you wish you had the runs instead. Others have said to take pepto bismol prophylacticly prior to eating and swear by it.
Every dish I got everywhere looked home-made and of possibly questionable kitchen cleanliness and questionable water sources. All that home-made looking food was VERY TASTY.
I bought a disposable razor and it rusted in just a few days, so dry yours off really good...Take multiple showers - doesn't have to be full-blown showers, but at least rinse off several times a day in addition to your real daily shower. Instead of a towel, bring a cotton or rayon sarong - dries out super-fast, is always ready, takes up less space, and weighs less. Also, (I don't normally use these things, but...) the Instead feminine products reduced the amount of stuff I had to pack w/ me, reduced trips to the restrooms, reduced my awareness of monthly misery, and was great for traveling. And bring a package of disposable wipes w/ you - most places have t.p., but you never know...anti-frizz/shine serum applied to unruly hair multiple times a day keeps you from looking like bride of Frankenstein.
I bought my tickets through a travel agent and I will NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. Agent tried to book me at hotels I couldn't afford and I had to cancel them. Agent botched itinerary several times. Agent only gave me 90 minutes between flights - not enough time for baggage claims, immigration & customs, and switch from international to domestic terminals at LAX, etc. etc. etc. Book yourself. Do your own research. It's better, and cheaper.
Some thoughts-I think Jamaica is like the ghetto here in America. Full of people who can't move up and full of people exploited by those who are privileged and many of the people are victims or think like victims, or try to find power in all the wrong ways. However, Sesame Street is located in the ghetto, and we all love Sesame Street too. In addition to dysfunctional families, corruption, and petty crime, it's also full of sweet grannies and children playing and the fruit vender and the corner cart vender and the dancing girl and the rapping man and...a whole lot of life.
It was sick and wrong for the IMF to make this country pay interest on its loans it had to take on its knees, sick it had to devalue its currency, and it's sick and wrong the local economy has been squeezed to extinction because they can't compete w/ imports being sold under "fair" trade in the global marketplace. Jamaica needs a break. It needs your tourist dollars. It needs you to tell them how to treat tourists and what you need to come back. My 2 cents. Even if they never get the tourism thing right, go there to witness for yourself what the multi-national companies do to small countries like Jamaica, because it's disturbingly right there in front of you everywhere you go in the city.
Then go to the country, see how they live, see how they have to survive, and think about what's wrong with a picture like this in a land so beautiful and bountiful where there's not enough to eat and no work to be had. Then go lie on the beach and count your blessings. It is every bit as enigmatic and unfathomable as the workings of communism in Cuba.
First, don't go to All-inclusives and don’t choose their biggest tourist destinations to go to. The people there are probably sick of dealing with tourists and sick of seeing how privileged they are - its only natural to be resentful and try and milk them for whatever they can get.
Second, here are several examples of how to NOT engage real Jamaicans, being critical of taxi rides and food prices and focusing on second-hand threat stories from other tourists.
Third, people sense fear and tension and it makes the people around you edgy.
I learned from my travels that my own mental state colored my trip more than my surroundings. It's hard to have sympathy if you are being judgmental or critical, and it's hard to have any interactions with real people if you have no sympathy for them.
The best times I had were just chatting w/ people casually because I was interested in them. People find interested people interesting and people open up to people who share a little about themselves. If asked, they'd love to tell you why life is hard there, how they cope, what their dreams are.
I went to three islands and Jamaica was my favorite. I enjoyed my Jamaican vacation very much and will definitely return.