I have to admit – I never had a burning a desire to “do” Rebel Salute. Sure, I’d heard great things about the music but it was all the “other stuff” that worried me. Things like twenty porta-potties for 40,000 people, so rank that you’d actually have to consider taking a piss jar with you. Things like stampedes and fires and pick-pockets gone wild. The whole thing sounded like chaos to me. This was why it was never a huge disappointment when we had to leave Negril before the event. As years went by we started pushing that departure date later into January. This year our scheduled departure date was January 16th.
At some point in mid-December we saw our friend Ron practically skipping across the yard. The date for Rebel Salute had been announced: January 14, 2007. We were going.
Preparations for this event started early. We packed bags: Layers of clothing to include long pants, long-sleeved shirts, hoodies, rain gear, socks and closed shoes, blankets, bottled water, piss jar, toilet paper and of course – two tents. Our driver was Bird. Bird had been driving the bus to Rebel Salute with our friends for the previous seven years. We loaded up his van and away we went.
You never have to ask me twice to attend a great party. Now that we were “veterans” the pack up for Rebel Salute this year went a lot faster. The big difference is that our posse had doubled in size for the trip. We had grown to eighteen people, requiring two vans. We waited at the front gates for what seemed like forever when finally we saw Bird’s van pulling into the driveway…but it wasn’t Bird behind the wheel. The driver stopped and got out of the van and introduced himself: It seems Bird got held up in Kingston and asked his friend to make the run instead. Even though we were disappointed that our constant companion would not be with us we greeted the guy warmly and headed towards the back of the van for load up. Sadly, the back door appeared to be locked and only accessible with another key – a key Bird had not given to this guy. With a little gymnastic action we were able to haul all our stuff over the back seat into the “trunk space”. Ready to go we still had to wait – the second van had not yet arrived.
So we wait. And we wait. Ron, who was “elected” transportation coordinator was on the phone frantically trying to find the van and its driver. He had made these arrangements with another driver he knew who was not available, a guy named Fabian. It was only when he finally reached Fabian did he learn that this driver had decided we weren’t paying him enough money so he simply blew us off. Luckily, Lea took a chance and gave a driver friend of her’s a call – he was available and on his way. Van B pulled up shortly afterwards, loaded up and we were off, two hours past our scheduled departure time.
By our third go at Rebel Salute I had now come to expect the usual drama: No show drivers, late departures, hurry up and wait at every turn. It was exhausting just to think about, so much so we had come very close to not going at all this year. But when the line-up was published it appeared to be the best of the previous three so we relented and made our plans. Rebel Salute 2009 was the most seamless, easy and uncomplicated event yet. Sure, we had our normal apprehensions – Bird, who had been the posse’s regular driver for years had sold his van and turned in his red plate to invest in a Jet Ski business. This year we asked Ron, a trusted driver friend of ours if he’d be willing to come with – he had access to his friend’s brand new van and he agreed. He arrived at our gate at noon sharp – so on time that we had to wait on the rest of the posse to arrive since they were prepared for the usual “soft” departure time of anywhere from 1/2 hour to two hours past Noon. The van was clean and deliciously roomy – we were off to Rebel Salute in true style for the very first time.
We drove out of Negril heading south and passing through familiar territory – Sav la Mar, Whitehouse, Bluefields and Black River. I was getting hungry and I knew from previous south coast trips that we’d soon be coming up on a row of shacks that sell fish, shrimp and bammy known as “fish alley”. The vendors would approach the van with beautiful trays of Roast Fish, bags of Pepper Shrimp and cups of Fish Tea. My mouth was watering.
I’d never tried Pepper Shrimp and wanted to get a bag but Bird said wait. He knew a place not too far from there where the shrimp were far better and that we would not be sorry. So we drove a while and soon entered a little town called Middle Quarters. Just up the road a bit the van pulled over in front of a blue shack with a sign hanging “Aunties and Cousins”.
The shrimp was sold by the pound and I ordered one-half pound. It was nothing like the shrimp they were selling at Fish Alley – these were actually fresh water crawfish, some as big as baby lobsters. They were boiled and pickled in a flavorful and spicy pepper and vinegar mixture and when you ate them your mouth tingled. I was blown away. Despite the heat I couldn’t get enough. I ordered another half-pound. We all sat in the funky backyard of the place, sucking the life out of these small creatures, tossing the shells to the chickens at our feet. I smiled at Bird as he sipped his Shrimp Soup, the shrimp head bobbing at its surface. This man knows his shrimp. We hosed ourselves off and got back into the van, happily fed.
Despite our tense and late departure we soon settled in for the ride. Our first stop was to be at Auntie’s for lunch. Her Pepper Shrimp had been calling us since last year and we were psyched to heed that call. We were in Van A with Bird’s friend and it soon became clear he did not know where he was going. Van B was leading but soon left us in the dust. Lea’s driver was a bit of a speed demon. Ron tried to do his best with directions from memory but we missed the mark. We took a turn into Black River and soon found ourselves heading towards Treasure Beach.
While we were pretty disappointed about missing our shrimp we soon realized that in life there are no accidents. We were driving through some of the most beautiful scenery I’d seen to date in Jamaica. We drove through lush hills with sweeping views of the sea, lovely homes scattered along the hillside. Brenda commented on how it reminded her of Tuscany. Best of all, there was no traffic and no cops. The “regular” way would have taken us through the congested city of Santa Cruz.
Shortly after we passed through the small town of Junction we were forced to stop to let a train go by. A train! Massive excitement in the van. Few if any of us had ever seen any time of train in Jamaica. This was a very small freight train probably carrying Bauxite from the mine to the shipping port.
Continuing down the road, much to our surprise, we had to stop again to let this same train pass. We were feeling better, especially when we were able to reach Van B by phone. They were at Aunties and agreed to carry an order of shrimp for us to Little Ochie.
Making great time we headed down the road, passing the familiar sights of the South Coast. There was more development happening this year and a sign advertising “The Future Home Of Usain Bolt” advertised a new scheme being built where, apparently the track star would soon own a home. We arrived at Aunties and gorged ourselves on Shrimp, Bammy and Shrimp Soup until our bellies were full.
Not long after we left Middle Quarters we arrived in the small coastal town of Alligator Pond, pulling into the parking lot of a seafood restaurant called Little Ochie. Since it is so close to Port Kaiser it is a traditional stop not just for us but for many heading to the show. Little Ochie is situated right on the beach with tables and platforms all over. Just as you enter there is a cement building containing the bar, kitchen and food storage. This is where you place your order. It’s a chaotic but wonderful system. First you decide what you’ll be eating: The choices include many types of fish, lobster, shrimp, crab and conch. Then you hand-pick your item from one of the many tanks and coolers. You have the opportunity to pick the freshest of the fresh – the fish whose flesh is firm and eyes are clear, the most lively lobster in the tank. Next you decide how you’d like it prepared – grilled, jerked or with garlic sauce. Your food is priced by the pound, not the plate and comes with festival – period. If you want veg, you can order it extra. You pay the cashier, grab a drink and wait for your food to come, settling in at one of the many tables. Les and I ordered lobster; me in garlic sauce, him grilled. Since Ron and Peg are seasoned pros, with one phone call we not only reserved our tickets to the show at pre-sale prices there but we have also reserved their favorite waitress, Carol. Carol guided us all through the ordering process with deft efficiency as soon as we arrived so shortly after that we were able to mingle with some of our friends who were already there.
We hung out for a while with Eddie, Marie and Roy. I met up with a guy I hadn’t seen in eight years. As we were catching up I felt a frantic tug at my arm. It was Marie. To know Marie is to love Marie; enthusiastic is probably the best way to describe her. When Marie wants your attention its very hard not to give it – the enthusiasm is quite contagious.
“Come Nikki,” she said. “Come meet Tyrone Taylor!”
Did she say Tyrone Taylor? Tyrone Taylor – the “My Little Cottage in Negril” Tyrone Taylor? His sweet love song about the simple life in the countryside had become my “theme song” since my first trip to Negril. THAT Tyrone Taylor.
He could have been a contender. Tyrone’s career was shooting forward and he was on the brink of making an international name for himself. The problem was that the man’s poisons had gotten to him and he squandered both his talent and future through a crack pipe. When I met him that January he had been living in England for ten years and had a stroke sometime back – but he was clean, and even through his crooked smile and limp walk he was charming and handsome as always. I will always remember fondly the short conversation we had that evening on the beach in Alligator Pond.
Our food arrived and I poked at my lobster cautiously. I’ve seldom enjoyed a lobster in Negril – it’s always been overcooked and rubbery and I’d given up ordering it in restaurants there. I’d been told Little Ochie was the best of everything so I’d taken a chance. As it turns out, a very good chance. The lobster was cooked perfectly – not overdone, not tough and it was swimming in the most amazing garlic sauce that I could have taken a bath in. Despite all the shrimp I tore the beat apart and mopped up every last drop of that sauce with the festival that it came with. I was a happy girl indeed.
We pulled into the Little Ochie parking lot just a minute or two behind Van B. Carol met us and we went through the ordering process, but with two vans and so many people there were some bumbaclot moments. Somehow Brenda and Bob had missed the mass ordering process and had ordered through another waitress which ended up setting their meal back for some time. Jerry, not even aware there was a plan a-foot headed straight into the kitchen, passed one of the cooks some money and walked out ten minutes later with a plate of steaming sautéed shrimp.
Despite the confusion and delays the food was as always magnificent. I ordered the lobster again. Tastes were passed around and it was all great, especially Bob’s jerked fish – tender, flaky and seasoned perfectly. I came to the conclusion that it was just impossible to order a bad meal here.
When we left Middle Quarters we were completely stuffed. Damn, we always do this! Middle Quarters is only forty-five minutes away from Alligator Pond and we arrived at Little Ochie with barely an appetite. Peg, Brenda, Les and I decided we’d split two entrees. We knew wanted the fish Bob had last year but couldn’t remember the preparation he’d ordered. Brenda actually called him from the beach there; poor Bob, he was not due to arrive in Negril for a few more days due to work and had to miss Rebel Salute this year. Still, he’s a great guy and an even better sport – he narrowed it down to either grilled or jerked. We decided on jerked (which, as it turned out was the correct choice). Wanting to try something different we ordered the crab as our second entree, with the marvelous garlic sauce that none of us could have lived without.
While we waited for our food I took the opportunity to do a little exploring. I walked up the beach, out of the restaurant area, and checked out the shoreline of Alligator Pond itself. I wandered back, finding an upstairs deck area that I had practically to myself. I could see the entire restaurant laid out in front of me, the sea before me and the lights of the Bauxite Factory to my right. By the time I returned our food was on the table.
The fish was even better than we remembered it to be. The crab looked great but as we dug in we found it to be hollow. Lights on, nobody home. Lots of shell – no meat. We had a dilemma here – none of us had ever sent a plate of food back in Jamaica. The thought of doing so was a little intimidating. Jamaican return policies are generally “tough luck”. When Carol returned to the table with our Festival we summoned up the courage and nicely told her about our crab problem. She poked at the crustacean and agreed – it was “maga”. Without a teeth kiss or an argument she picked up the plate and told us it might be a while before she came back with a better crab. We were so pleasantly surprised by her graciousness, it was no problem. By the time the fish and most of the festival was devoured she was back, this time with a proper crab. And while the crab was good we decided that in the future we’d stick to lobster, fish and shrimp: More tried and true.
As the sun set we lingered. Since we’d arrived so early there was no need to eat and run this year.