Sparking a spliff is tough while driving an open-windowed jeep. But we’re being bumped slowly — Billy can light and puff and also steer with his left knee. The A4 is a prosaic mosaic of puddles and potholes.
“Nice,” he says, “for it being the main highway. Yunno?” He flicks ash out the window.
This narrow vein threads fragrant green fields of Jamaica’s finest. It skirts the lush, brooding John Crow Mountains. It fords historic burgs like Yallahs and Golden Grove and their loose storefronts and tiny pubs, the barber shops, the gas stations, old slavery plantations. It fronts rusty jerk-meat grills and mounds of burning trash, miles of sugarcane, loud waterfalls, craggy cliffs, the blue Caribbean, fruit stands, idle people.
Often, like today, Billy rolls the A4 while listening to songs by Mystic Revealers, his old reggae band of global fame. He sings along with his recorded lyrics and, often, he’s spotted by folks along the road — “Hey, Rastaman!” they shout. “Love, love, love!” In Jamaica, Billy is a star.
Slouched in the back seat with their iPods are Shane and his pal Ivah, Billy’s youngest. They will say little during our two-hour, 60-mile-drive from the south coast’s Bull Bay, where Billy lives, to the north coast. Today the south coast is lake-flat, but windswell from Tropical Storm Emily, a big rainmaker for Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, is jolting Jamaica’s surf hub of Boston Beach.
“This is the flattest the sea has been in three years, mon,” Billy says in Port Morant. He spells it out. “F-l-a-a-a-a-t. Normally you see whitewater all over the place.”
“On flat days down here, where do you look for surf?”
“When it’s this small, mon, we smoke weed and chill out and wait for swell. Or we go north.”
The east of his isle is lush but broken. “Saint Thomas is a neglected parish,” he says, blowing smoke from his nose. “No tourism or any industry over here. It used to be big for sugarcane, for banana, but not any more. And the Goodyear tire factory closed down. That’s why surfing is embraced here. It’s something Montego Bay cannot take away from us. Negril cannot. Ocho Rios cannot.”
Ah, Jamaica’s trio of tourist havens, deep with suave resorts and bright white sand. Tourism is the island’s main revenue, after all — 2010 saw two million visitors, virtually all to the three zones Billy named, and 2011 is projected to welcome three million land-based and cruise-ship souls. “If you fly into Montego Bay, you see loads of white people,” he says. “But you flew into Kingston, yeah? The people there probably thought you picked the wrong airport.”
I was the only surfer and the only non-black in the JetBlue plane and in Norman Manley International because, if they don’t surf, white tourists avoid Jamaica’s south and east coasts. The beaches are windy and rocky, crime abounds, the roads are bad, there are no swim-up bars nor golfing greens. And much of the beach zone has been thrashed by hurricanes — a bad place to build another Sandals (Jamaica has seven).
“Ever been in a hurricane?” Billy asks me.
“Nope. Don’t want to.”
“You have to experience one to really know what it’s like. Imagine the wind blowing 160 miles an hour for four hours! Anything that isn’t bolted down, moves. It crumples steel and cement like aluminum foil, mon. It destroys every’ting.”
As the pavement smooths (Billy: “We’re heading into the main tourist area — the road’s good for them.”), the A4 snakes inland around Innes Bay and past the turn-off for Reich Falls, past the fishing village of Manchioneal, and again it greets the Caribbean at Long Bay, a long fetch of mostly unsurfable coast. Facing northeast, however, it is ribbed by blue, tit-high windswell. Thank you, Emily.
There are some spots here and there, Billy says. “Usually nothing worth the drive.”
This volcanic east fringe is wild and corrugated, known, among other things, for its sea caves and the spicy scent of jerk pork embedded in the breeze. Boston Beach, which suddenly pops into view off the road’s right side, would be easy for another driver — a tourist, say — to miss its turquoise-hued, C-shaped cove flanked by steep, green bluffs.
Billy parks us in the small, littered cement lot at the base of the hill fronting the surf. There’s a left off the north side and a right off the south. Occasionally they meet in the middle. They’re bumpy and backwashy. Many closeouts. The left looks a bit longer and steeper, but, as regularfooters, Shane and I opt for the right.
“How are you loving the waves so far?” he asks me after I catch a few bad ones. “Good, eh?”
“Yes, irie. I’m loving it.”
“It’s so good, mon! We all getting some good ones, yeah?”
On a short orange thruster, Shane surfs with strength and fluidity. Most of his friends too are skilled — floaters, airs, carves, snaps. I am impressed. The performance level rivals any Orange County hotbed. Out killing the left-handers, Icah, Billy’s oldest son, has been called “the Rob Machado of Jamaica.”
It was Machado who, in 2004’s A Broke Down Melody, said “the future of surfing is gonna come from places that you least expect.” This is the same film that introduced many— including me — to Jamaican surf. On a map, the island’s small encircling sea doesn’t seem to ooze waves. And it doesn’t, really. But it does. Enough to afford the annual Makka Pro surf contest and two national contest series; a Jamaican representation at the World Surfing Games, at the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships, and at the Pan American Surfing Games; a thriving Jamaican Surfing Association, a surf camp or two, surf lessons, surfboard rentals, high school surf programs, corporate surf sponsorships, surfboard shapers, and a lot of obsessed kids.
“See?” Billy says after my short session. We’re standing in the shade by his jeep. “The youths are killing it, mon. This is the future right here.”
The late-day sun behind us floods the cove with bright, photogenic color. Like he often does, Billy videos the kids. It’s important for them.
He lights a spliff as a family of white Floridians approaches. They’re staying at Sandals in Ocho Rios and drove to Boston to taste its famous jerk meat. The mother is shocked — she didn’t know surfing was so popular in Jamaica. Her two young sons seem intrigued by Billy’s joint — marijuana is illegal where they come from. Her husband, rotund and unathletic, asks about renting a board and having a surf lesson here.
“There’s your man,” Billy says, pointing to a young dreadlocked surfer doing push-ups on the cement. I’d seen him out ripping. The kid’s got a spliff between his lips.
(As seen in the new issue of Deep magazine; deepzine.com)