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Thursday, 12 April 2007

Black River Safari w/ Yasmine & Rasta George

Written by Vince Bogan
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This was my last full day in Jamaica. The week went by so fast. Next time I promised myself I’d stay at least ten days.

I don’t know why I was so nervous as I ate my morning vegetarian breakfast. So jumpy in fact, that when the lovely Yasmine appeared all packed and ready for our day on the road, I found myself apologizing for not being ready to go. She sat with me as I finished my coffee, and our friend Alan continued to give us last minute travel tips.

I went back to my cabin to get ready. I did a few breathing exercises to clear my head and to chill my angst. Soon my mellow mood returned and the excitement of the impending day’s adventure took over my anxieties. I did one last mental checklist and out the door I strode.

We waved good-bye to our friends and headed to the Negril Bus Depot. Walking past the roundabout, a gaggle of cabbies called out to us in their special way, but as soon as Yasmine’s French accent called back, “70J to Sav?” they just stopped and pointed towards the bus depot.

In a few minutes we were walking through a sea of white Toyotas at the depot. Again, a dozen drivers told us of the “deals” they had, but once they heard that French accent they gave up and pointed to the next taxi headed to Sav-La-Mar. I guess the Jamaicans think Europeans are not as flahoolic with their money as Americans are. I didn’t care that they thought we were French -it was saving me money!

Since Yasmine had that French thing going for her and seemed to enjoy haggling, I let her do all the talking. When I’m in Negril I have that “Everyone’s my friend” attitude. Though it attracts sellers and scammers, that’s a big part of Jamaica’s charm. You have some fun interacting, and you pump a few bucks into the local economy. Win-Win.

We boarded our taxi for the ride to Sav, once there we’d get another taxi to Black River. The driver had me sit up front with him, and Yasmine sat in the back of the Corolla with three Jamaicans: a mother, her daughter, and a young man with a broken hand who somehow shoe-horned in.

Our driver drove like a sixteen year old kid trying to impress his friends, but as we headed out of town I let myself relax. It was one of those “give in to the moment” situations. The loud thumping reggae negated any ideas of chatting with Yasmine, so I sank into the seat and into the music.

Soon the excitement I’d been feeling and the energy that was flowing came together. I felt as if I was standing at the precipice of time, fully aware, leaning into the oncoming rush of the present. I wished Sav was a thousand miles away, I didn't want the moment to end, but it was one of those rare mountaintop experiences that are special because you only get a glimpse at any one time.

Sav was very different from Negril, it was less colorful, there were fewer smiles, and the streets were not very crowded. This was where people lived and worked, not where they were trying to impress tourists. I’d heard it really bustles on market day, I’m sure I’ll be back through.

We unloaded in a small lot near the center of town. There were taxis lined up and a few food vendors with dull makeshift carts who half-heartedly advertised their wares. Yasmine walked over and got a jelly coconut from one of them, while I found taxi number two. This time the taxi was a mini-van, we climbed into what we thought was the two-seater up front as we sipped the delightfully strange coconut water with two straws. When the bus filled up, a third person jammed in next to us (so much for the two-seater). Yasmine was a bit squished but at least she was squished against me.

The ride out of Savannah-La-Mar was fast and furious: there were fourteen people shoved in the van and I felt like I was really traveling in a foreign country. However, the people were warm and friendly and seemed interested in us: where we were from and why we weren’t on a tour bus. I answered one older woman, “How else was I gonna meet you?” She smiled wide (and they say Jamaicans are smooth).

It seems the entire tourism industry did everything it could to keep a separation between tourists and normal Jamaicans, the ones not trained by years of working the tourist trade. Part of me knows that's how they make their money, by packaging Jamaica in a polished shell, but another part knows that sadly, this is too close for most American and European tourists. Perhaps I can help spread the word.

Yasmine and I made chitchat: discussing philosophy, politics, and Paris. She was a strong, confident woman and yet so feminine. I admit the idea that these qualities are mutually exclusive is a defective mental construct made up of my past bad relationships, yet I could feel a manly confidence build as we sat close, touched and talked.

The terrain really changes as you leave Sav, the lush tropical feel gives way to grassy, almost desert-like conditions, which I guess why the Spanish named it, the savannah by the sea. Leaving Westmoreland Township and entering St. Elizabeth, the road immediately gets better, and the already racing driver picks up speed.

The taxi had all but emptied itself along the route. Most of the group getting out at the town of Bluefields, the boyhood home of Peter Tosh, the second most famous Jamaican reggae star, several more at Whitehouse, where they are building a huge new Sandals resort. It stands out like a sore thumb, literally, because it is being built on a small peninsula, and figuratively because it breaks up the natural country charm of the area. At every cross road you see small rum shacks and markets, with small country homes sparsely dotting the roadside between.

Pulling into Black River, it looked a lot like Sav-La-Mar, though there was a bit more color and much more commerce. We each paid our driver, and it struck me what a great trip it was, just over two hours and only about $3.50US.

In Jamaica, the bus depots are not in the tourist part of town, they are in the people part of town. We headed across a small bridge towards the docks along the river. To our right was the Black River Safari, it was the local tourist trap taking a bus load of people up river at a time in covered pontoon boats, complete with music, and sticky-sweet rum punch at the turn around point.

boat We turned left and headed to local docks along the river. There were a half dozen twelve foot multicolored fishing boats lined up complete with local guides looking for more adventurous travelers like us, just like Yasmine’s guide book said there would be.

This is where we met Rasta George. Rasta George was the real deal, he told us of an exciting, fun, educational, and romantic trip into the Black River Morass, and all this for only $2US more than the “Corporate Tour.” He had me at hello, but we haggled a bit anyway. He wouldn’t budge, which somehow was so strange in Jamaica that we said ok and forked over $40US. He told us to wait in a little café right there near the docks where we sipped icy Tings and excitedly waited for our odyssey to begin.

About fifteen minutes later we were climbing into a small fishing boat and were headed up the river. It was only then when I realized I’d given my camera to Yasmine to keep in her bag. As I began taking pictures and I focused on an oncoming big tour boat, the people yelled and waved as they zoomed by, and I looked at Yasmine and we said in unison, “This is so much better!” Rasta George smiled and said that we’ve seen nothing yet, and for years we’d be telling people to come see Rasta George in Black River. He was right.


Rasta George is a tall thin Rastaman, his dreads were tucked into a tam bearing the Rasta colors of green, yellow and black, he wore wire-rimmed sunglasses and he bubbled with personality. He was a great guide; explaining all about the morass, what rivers fed it and how they come together to form Black River, he knew all about the flora and fauna, and he explained how the swamp’s eco-chain worked.

boat As if on cue, the boat driver Brant shouted something to Rasta George, and he pointed to another tour boat headed up river. The “Corporate” boat had paused, and all its passengers were ooh-ing and aah-ing. As we pulled closer we could see that just beyond the river’s edge was a small lagoon with a supposed crocodile swimming around. The tour boat was stopped about ten yards out in the river, but we didn’t even slow down as we approached!

“Brace yourself!” Called Rasta George as we crashed through the mangrove and slid into the small lagoon, and yes, there was a crocodile in there with us! At first I was freaked out, more so from the tour boat folks screaming than from the three foot crocodile hastily swimming away from us.

“Just a pickney,” he whispered to Yasmine and me as we went back out to the river, but as we passed near the tour boat he shouted, “No Mon! Can’t see dem giants from a dat tour boat,” his wink told us he was playing to the tour boat patrons. The tour boat guide gave us a dirty look and gunned the engines on the big boat, as we smugly waved goodbye, feeling pretty good about or decision to see the river with Rasta George.

“Tourists,” I said in a jokingly snobbish way, which made Yasmine laugh. I looked back a few seconds later and she was still laughing. “What?” I queried.

“You look like more of a tourist than anyone else on the entire island!” she said laughing with Rasta George and Brant joining in.

“Looks can be and obviously ARE deceiving!!” I retorted, and we all laughed and Yasmine gave me an apologetic hug. Yeah, OK, I was wearing blue shorts, sandals, a loud Hawaiian shirt, and a bright red Phillies baseball cap, all while furiously taking pictures.
Soon we came upon a little bar where the tour boat from earlier was docked. The tourists were drinking their punch, and dancing to reggae from a boom box. They were having a grand 'ol time.


Just past the bar was low concrete bridge, far too low for the tour boats and that was obviously where we were headed. “Them tour boats can’t come up here, this is why you come with us!” Rasta George boasted and into the upper river we went. I never felt so separated from the real world as I did just then. Pulling away from the tourists I had flashbacks to all those movies where the scary part starts just like this.

Anytime you go to Negril you know you’re not in Philly anymore, or Kansas, or, you know what I mean, but here, fifty miles from Negril and then ten miles up a jungle river, the feeling is truly awesome. Up here there are some serious crocodiles, five to seven footers, which seem pretty damn big, when you’re close enough to reach out and touch them. I don’t know how many times that day I thought to myself, “Is this really happening?” “Am I really here?” Little did I know the coolness meter was about to ratchet itself up another notch.crocodile

Around a small bend in the narrowing river was a rickety wooden dock at a tiny little cove. We docked at this little oasis in the mangrove. Yasmine and I just looked at each other. I was thinking this must be the romantic part of the trip Rasta George told us about back in town. I don't know what she was thinking.

Climbing out of the boat we could see a small thatched hut in the clearing and we walked up to make our introductions. There was a bartender and a few locals at the rough-hewn bar, we got a few Red Stripes and made small talk as one of the locals fired up a spliff.

The bartender told us to take advantage of the mid-day sun and take a dip in the crocodile filled river. I thought he was crazy, but when Yasmine started back to the water I followed, and when she stripped down to her bikini, I joined her in the water. Splashing around was fun until Yasmine asked if I thought splashing around attracts crocodiles like it does sharks.

Buzz Kill!

“They’re more afraid of you than you are of them!” Rasta George shouted from shore.

“Ya sure?” I asked not expecting a real answer, but I got one.

“If I let the crocs eat the people I go out of business quick, no?” He answered, which made perfect sense to me at the time.

After a few pictures we got out of the water, had a second beer and sunned ourselves on the large rocks like our friends the crocodiles do. After about an hour at our little oasis, sadly, it was time to go.

On the way back to town we drove a lot faster. Yasmine and I shared a bench on the boat, and we kind of snuggled as the spray from the water gently washed over our faces. Few words were spoken, we were now on the homebound part of our trip and I was leaving tomorrow early. I don’t know about her, but I saw a very romantic evening ahead of us.

Back in Black River we went into the same little café and got some bottled water and French fries.

“You guys did a great Job with these,” I said, squirting that translucent Jamaican ketchup on a plate.

“Fries?” she smirked.

“French Fries!!” I said teasing her.

“We had nothing to do with them,” she said dryly in that sultry French accent.

“I love your accent,” I said, immediately wishing I didn’t use the word love.

“What accent? You’re the one with the accent,” she teased back. “Americans think everyone has an accent, but them.”

“Go ahead, bash the ugly American” I pouted.

“You’re a very cute American,” she purred as she leaned over and kissed me.


©Vince Bogan

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012