There are a lot of things about Jamaica that I have sort of a love/ hate relationship with. Right at the top of that list is Jamaican public transportation (usually just referred to as public). In a lot of ways, the public transportation system here is incredible – you can get to the most remote corners of the island on public and it is usually relatively cheap. But in many other ways, it is incredibly frustrating sometimes – it requires a lot of patience, a lack of need for personal space and usually a good sense of humor. Either way, it’s a huge part of my life here, and so something I should explain to those who want to know what life is really like in Jamrock. So, come, let’s take a trip on public, shall we?
As Negril is in the westernmost corner if the island, I happen to live as far from Kingston (a.k.a. – Town) as possible. Despite this, I often have to go to the Peace Corps office in Town for various reasons. The trip is about 150 miles or so, but often takes me upwards of 6 hours. Usually I have to be in Town sometime in the early afternoon, and so to make it anywhere near on time, I wake up at about 5am. I take a quick shower, get dressed, maybe grab a small bite to eat and head out. If I’m awake enough, I’ll remember to take an Alieve or two before I leave, or throw the whole bottle in my bag – my knees and back will thank me at the end of the trip.
So by about 5:30 or so, I’m heading down my lane to wait for the first of a few taxis. I’ve explained this before, but in Jamaica, taxis run like buses. They are usually regular 4-door cars, but they drive on a specific route, and people get on or off anywhere along the route for fixed prices. Licensed, insured taxis can be identified by their red license plates while private cars operating as taxis have white plates. It is usually preferred to take red plates, but in certain areas this just isn’t realistic – getting a red plate is a lot of money and work, and so a lot of drivers just don’t do it. Thus, you are sometimes left with no choice but to take a white plate. Anyway, back to the trip. After about a 2 minute walk down my lane, I reach the main road that goes down to Negril and I wait. Sometimes I luck out and get a drive in just a minute or two, other times it takes as much as half an hour – you just never know. But eventually I get a ride and after about a 5 minute drive I make it down to Negril for J$90 – just over US$1 (total vehicle count so far: 1, total cost so far: J$90, approximate total driving time: 5 minutes).
From here I have a decision to make – I can either get to Kingston via the north or south coast, and there’s a continual debate over which route is better. To go south coast, I have to get to a town called Sav, about half an hour south-east. But the road from Sav to Town is awful, and the bus park in Sav is very slow. So if you don’t get a full bus, it might be 2+ hours until the next one leaves (more on why this is so later). The north coast road is much, much better, but it’s a little longer. However, the buses on this route tend to fill faster, making the overall trip time pretty equal. I like the smoother road, so I usually take the north coast, through Montego Bay (MoBay).
So, decision made and off to MoBay we go. First stop is a town called Lucea, halfway between Negril and MoBay – there are no public buses/ cars that go straight from Negril to MoBay. I usually end up waiting for a Lucea taxi in the Negril bus park for at least 10 minutes, as it’s so early that most drivers are still asleep in their beds. But eventually a taxi will come, and at least 3 of us will pile in. The drivers like to make the most bang for their buck, so they like to put at least 5 passengers in their car – 1 in front and 4 in back (yes, this is in a standard 4 door sedan type car). Often times, there are 2 people in the front and more than 4 in the back, especially if a few of the passengers happen to be small kids or teenagers. There is no real comfortable way to sit 4 in the backseat, but the best way to do it is to have one of the two people in the middle (usually women), “sit up”. This means one of them moves up in the seat so that they are just on the edge of the seat and their knees are sort of at an angle. Usually it is the smallest or the youngest woman who does this. As long as the other passengers in the car aren’t selfish about their space or aren’t too fluffy (a Jamaican term for larger ladies, usually used in an endearing manner) this actually always terribly uncomfortable. But sometimes it’s just downright painful.
So, now we’re all “smalled up” in the car. Comfortable? Good, because we’ll be like this for about half an hour on this leg. The driver makes his way out of Negril and towards Lucea, to the north-east. If the car’s full, he’ll drive as fast as he can, passing other cars, buses, trucks or anything in his way (drivers are almost exclusively men). Often around blind curves. Yes, this is dangerous. No, he’s not going to slow down, so it’s best to just sit back and relax as best you can. (It’s a true sign of a PCV’s integration when they get out of a taxi saying “Man, he was going way too slow! Only passed like 2 people on the way!”) If the driver doesn’t have a full car, he’ll slow down at every person he passes and honk, asking if they need a ride in the direction he’s going. At one point, one of the passengers will say something like: “Wan stop driver”, or “let off”, or simply “right up here driver” to signal that they want to get out. They pay their fare, get out, and if you were smalled up, you and the rest of the passengers can now readjust. But don’t get too comfortable – the driver will soon pick up someone else, so it’ll be time to small up again. After about half an hour in this car, you’ll reach Lucea. You get out at the park (each town has a central bus park where most of the buses/ taxis gather and load, and it’s usually just referred to as the park), pay your fare and make your way to the MoBay buses. (vehicle count: 2, cost: $290, driving time: 35 minutes).
Now, time to be alert. The MoBay buses all queue up in one area, and it should be that the buses load in order that they come in, one at a time. But this isn’t always the case. So as soon as you get out of your taxis, you will have “loaders” come at you asking if you are going to MoBay. Loaders are people who are paid by the drivers to load their bus fast so they can get back out on the road. They’ll use any tactic necessary to get you into their bus: flattery, intimidation, rushing you, grabbing your arm/ bag/ sweater/ etc, they’ll lie to you about where the other buses are going – anything. This sometimes leads to fights between loaders, but usually it’s just understood that it’s part of the job and unless someone does something really out of order, the different loaders are relatively civil to each other. The key to dealing with the loaders? Stand your ground and don’t let them fluster you. You never give them your bag – that’s pretty much agreeing to go in whatever bus they put you in. And you definitely don’t want to lie to them about where you are going to get them off your back – that’s just asking for trouble. When the first loader approaches to asking if you’re going to MoBay, it’s best to say yes but also explain that you are getting on the fullest bus, no matter whose it is. Usually if you are firm enough and very clear about that point, he’ll ease up a bit. Not totally, but a little. So look around and find the fullest bus going to MoBay you can and get on. Different routes have their own areas to load in, and each bus/taxi also has their route printed either on the front or side so you know which bus is going where.
Now, we’re moving up and no longer in taxis, but in “mini-buses”, 15 passenger vans. But since this is Jamaica, there will be about 20 people in this vehicle, so once again, get ready to small up. If you’re lucky, you get a real seat, even if it is squished. If not, you get a “cross-seat”, a piece of cushion on a hard board that is spread across the 10 inch space in the “aisle” of the bus for you to sit on. These are by far the worst seats on the bus, as they are the most squished and there is no back to lean against. If it’s a long trip, it might be worth it to fight for a better seat or to wait for the next bus to load, but since this one is only about half an hour, I usually just take whatever seat I can get. So once the bus is fully loaded and more people are squished on than seems possible, you’re ready to go. Even though this is a bigger vehicle, it works exactly the same as the taxis, so there will be stops to let some people off and then on throughout the ride. By now, it’s about 6:30/7, so people will be more lively and talkative on this ride. It’s generally way to curvy and squished to read on the buses, and a few people will listen to headphones on the way. There will usually be music playing anyway – often the radio, but sometimes the pick of the driver which is pretty much like musical Russian roulette. But there’s usually a good amount of chatter, and noise to keep you entertained on this short leg. And before you know it, there you are: MoBay. After a few standard stops on the outskirts of town at different ports or factories, you’ll make it to the park. Once again, you make your way out of the bus as gracefully as possible (not always easy after being squished and likely losing circulation in at least one extremity), pay your fare and look for your next bus. (vehicle count: 3, total cost: $470, driving time: 1hr, 40 min)
Now, since MoBay – Kingston is such a long route, the drivers are much better at queuing and staying in order, so you don’t have to be so defensive with the loaders. So find the line of Town buses, make your way on to the first bus and get comfy – you’ll be here for a while. This is a much bigger bus – one of those that’s about 10 – 15 feet long and would usually seat about 25 people. They can easily sit 4 people across a row (with one unlucky passenger in the “jump seat” that folds down into the aisle), but often 5 get squeezed across. A lot of people also have big bags, boxes or other things, especially on the longer hauls. These are all creatively squeezed in somewhere. Some people make a fuss about being smalled up too much, especially if one of them happens to be fluffy. But usually it’s just understood that this is the reality of public.
If the bus is almost entirely full, you’re in luck and you’ll leave out pretty soon. If not, well, that sucks. Buses and taxis usually don’t move until they are full. Well full. I’ve waited for just over 2 hours for buses to load. It can be one of the most infuriating things in the world. Especially in the mid-day, people just aren’t travelling as much or as far so the buses take forever to fill. Sometimes the people try to convince the driver to get going anyway, but that’s usually a futile effort. And again, people don’t really read or listen to ipods, and since you already stand out enough you probably shouldn’t either. It’s not a hard and fast rule that you can’t, but you just generally don’t (the newspaper is one general exception to this). So be patient. Stressing it will do nothing but raise your blood pressure and give the Jamaicans something to tease the whitey about.
While the bus is loading, there will be plenty of vendors coming to sell you various items. Usually it’s some sort of snack or drink, or phone credit, but sometimes they pop up with really random items. Manicure sets, toothbrushes, underwear, DVDs, CDs, jewelry and more are all common items that are usually sold in the major parks. It’s pretty nice though – if you want a bottle of water, you know you don’t have to wait too long before someone walks up to the bus to sell you some. Or if you want an excuse to stretch your legs after sitting for so long, go and get one yourself.
So once the bus is full and people make their final adjustments, the bus is ready to move out. This is the long part of the trip. It’s at least a 4 hour ride, so let’s hope you’re comfortable. If not, you can try to adjust a bit, but it usually doesn’t help so just get used to it. Just like on airplanes, your neighbors can make or break your trip. Hopefully you’re not sitting next to someone too fluffy or selfish about their space, someone who smells or someone who will attempt to hit on you the entire time. But it’s all just luck of the draw on public.
The other nice thing about the north coast route is that they always make a pit stop about halfway through. So after about 1.5 – 2 hours, you’ll stop at a gas station with a bathroom that’s surprisingly clean for the circumstances, and a nice little store. After about 10 minutes, it’s time to pile back into the bus.
This is always my least favorite part of the ride. The first 2 hours or so on a ride are fine. A little boring, but nothing I can’t handle. But after about 2 hours squished into a bus, I tend to start loosing the will to live. I just don’t want to do it anymore. But I don’t really have a choice, so I have to just go with it. Hopefully there are people on the bus to make the ride entertaining. Although, just like the neighbors, this is definitely luck of the draw – they can make or break the trip. Some common topics of conversation on buses are: problems in Jamaica, politics (if this is the topic, best to keep your head down and make a few ambiguous nods), music, religion, dating, differences between men and women in general, the sex lives or preferences of different passengers, etc. Keep in mind that generally everyone on the bus is strangers. But in Jamaica, that doesn’t mean you can’t talk loudly and publicly about the last person you slept with or your preferred positions – many Jamaicans just aren’t phased by that kind of conversation. If you have a good group of people on your bus, these conversations definitely make the trip go faster.
But often times everyone is relatively quiet. In that case hopefully the driver makes good time and you don’t hit any traffic. About 3 hours into the ride, people will start getting off at various towns. On the long rides, it’s understood that you don’t get on that bus unless you’re going at least half way. On these rides, in addition to the driver, you will also have the ducta (short for conductor). He is the one that collects the fare and also the one who tells the driver when people want to get off along the way. About a half hour outside of Town, he’ll collect everyone’s fare. I’m always kind of impressed by this. He collects generally in order, but makes change for people as he goes and keeps track of where people get on and off and how much they owe. If he doesn’t have the right change at the moment, he’ll get as close as he can and then give you the rest when he gets it. In general, drivers and ductas are really honest about the fares and actually don’t try to rip people off. You’ll get your exception to this, for sure, and that’s always really frustrating. But generally they are really honest about giving you the correct change and telling you the correct fare if you ask.
(One quick aside: in Jamaica, it is standard practice to identify strangers by their job. So if you don’t know your taxi driver, but want to get his attention, you refer to him as “driver” – this isn’t at all condescending. Same with the ducta. The guy who sells small bags of nuts in the park? Nutsy. The fruit vendor? Fruitsy. It also works with physical characteristics – someone with dreadlocks is simply called Rasta, a light skinned person is brownie or browning, an Asian person is Mr or Mrs Chin, an Indian person is Coolie, someone who is particularly dark is blackie. This is a weird thing to get used to, but it’s not done to be politically incorrect and is actually really useful. If you want to point someone out, why not just use the characteristic that makes them stand out the most? When you say “That whitey over there” it’s much easier for everyone to know who you’re talking about than if you say “That man wearing the blue shirt”.)
Once you start making to the outskirts of Town, pay attention. At one point, the ducta will call out “Anyone for three mile?”. That’s the stop you want.
As the bus is getting closer to downtown and the main park in Kingston, the ducta will call out “Anyone for Three Mile?”, and this is the best spot to get off. The bus will go straight to the main park in downtown Kingston, but there’s no need to go that far. And by this point, I’m always so ready to get off the bus that I’ll stop pretty much anywhere. So I get off at three mile. The ducta has already collected my fare, and for the first time in at least 2 or 3 hours, I can actually stretch out my legs – sometimes a pretty painful process. (Vehicle count: 3, total cost: $1,120, travel time: 5hours, 40 minutes)
Now, once again there’s a choice to make. I can either take a regular taxi to the PC office, or charter. Chartering is just hiring a taxi to take you and you alone straight to where you’re going. It’s a lot more convenient, but a lot more expensive. There are always about 5 – 10 drivers waiting to be chartered at three mile, and they all know PC. So anytime a whitey gets off the bus, they automatically start yelling “Peace Corps! Come with me, Peace Corps!”. If you decide to take one of these guys, it will take about 15 minutes to reach the office, but it’ll cost about $500 – almost as much as the whole MoBay – Town trip. But usually the drivers are really nice, and like most Jamaicans, making small talk with them is really easy (if not exhausting after 5+ hours of travel). You never, ever have the same conversation with Jamaicans twice, so it’s always interesting to see where the conversation goes. And before you know it you are at the Peace Corps office! If you’re lucky, you have some time to rest and stretch out before you have to do whatever it is you came in to do. (Vehicle count: 4, total cost: $1,620 (about US$12), travel time: 5hrs, 55 min).
But sometimes I’m not in the mood to pay $500 to charter, so I continue on public. To do this, I have to walk past all the drivers waiting to be chartered, which can be pretty difficult. Just like the loaders, they can be pretty aggressive. But just beyond them, there are regular route taxis that go to Halfway Tree – the major transportation hub in local destinations in and around Town. Usually this driver doesn’t wait for a full 5 person load, and leave within a few minutes. Sometimes there’s less chatter in a route taxi but again, it’s all luck of the draw based on the driver and other passengers. Kingston is a really confusing city, and I’m always really impressed that the drivers know it so well. And it seems like I never really go the same way twice. After the 4 – 5 hour trip from MoBay, this 10/15 minute drive in a not smalled up car is always nice. And it’s only J$80 to Halfway Tree, a much cheaper option. (Vehicle Count: 4, total cost: $1,200, travel time: 5 hours, 55 min)
From Halfway Tree, you can either get in one final taxi to the area of Town the PC Office is in, or you can walk. Walking is about 20 minutes, and the ride is about 5 – 10 depending on traffic. If you opt for the taxi, when you reach the office, you’ll have been in 5 different vehicles, spent $1,280 and driven for just over 6 hours (remember, that’s not counting time spent waiting for the rides!).
Either way, it’s an exhausting trip. But at this point, it’s probably only about noon or so, and you still have a half day’s worth of activities and errands to take care of in Town. Not to mention socializing with any other volunteers who happen to be in the area after that. Needless to say I usually sleep pretty well and pretty early on travel days. And my average stay in Town is usually just about 18 hours. If you’re in Town for official PC business (meetings, Dr appts, etc), they put you up in a hotel and even give you per diem. But this adds up pretty quick, so you can usually just get one night, maybe 2 if you’re lucky. Meaning that the next day, you’ll likely have to make the whole trip in reverse! And yes, that is just as depressing as it seems. After a half day of travel, waking up the next morning knowing you have to do it all over again is a bit demoralizing. But at least at the end of that trip, you can sleep in your own bed – sometimes my only motivation to get back on that bus.
This was a rather long post, so congrats for making it all the way through! But it seems fitting that a long ordeal like this gets a long post, no? And stay tuned for a post in the next few weeks too – this year is my first and only Jamaican Christmas, and I’ll definitely share the experience with all of you! Till then, Happy Holidays to all!