LESSONS FROM JAMAICA
A Report about the CGI Feast Site in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, 1998
by Eric Snow
Attended by over 150 people on the opening day, the Church of God, International Feast site in Ocho Rios, Jamaica gave those present a remarkably spiritually fulfilling experience. Ian Boyne, the CGI pastor for Jamaica, may be the finest public speaker in the church today. Besides giving sermons on the God Family doctrine and the Sabbath (for a public campaign), other messages he gave focused on the need for us to really live our Christianity, to accept the pain and suffering that comes from the hard choices we have to make in order to obey God. We have to live as exiles on the earth, realizing we are here but temporarily, so we shouldn't attach ourselves to materialistic goals so long as they inflict harm on our relationship with God or with brethren in the church. During one sermon, he asked his listeners, in a striking metaphor, about whether they would give up their "Isaac," i.e., their highest earthly desire. Because of Jamaica's poor economic situation (30% unemployment), if one loses a job because of the Sabbath or the Feast days being taken off, it often takes six months to find another. It was against this grim economic backdrop that Pastor Boyne's call for uncompromised service to God gained additional poignancy and urgency. Consequently, the CGI Feast in Jamaica had a theme that approached the Passover's. Unlike the usual claptrap that seems to go out every year about "we had the best Feast ever," this certainly was true for me spiritually for this Feast, as well as for others present. The fact that services were usually slated to last for two and three-quarters hours, and often went overtime, once to nearly three and a half hours, yet still felt effortless (i.e., still were interesting), shows how inspirational the music was and how forceful Pastor Boyne and others' messages were. The CGI ministerial council's chairman, Ben Chapman, also spoke at the Feast. (He occupies an interesting niche in COG history--he married the widow of Richard Armstrong after HWA's oldest son was killed in a car accident, thus making Mr. Chapman the honorary "third son" of HWA).
A MUSICAL FEAST
One particularly striking aspect of the Feast was the Jamaican brethren's devotion to singing hymns and performing special music, especially when considering this was a small Feast site by old (pre-1995) WCG standards. [Special note: The Jamaican brethren will have to pardon me below as I start sounding like an amateur anthropologist, i.e., the neutral objective outsider, in some of what follows below]. Especially when considering how far fewer people and much less equipment were present compared to a typical American Feast site (especially Wisconsin Dells in the pre-1995 era), the Jamaican brethren's gifts for making "a joyful noise to the Lord" were very impressive. The CGI hymnal is full of lively and moving traditional Protestant hymns which the Jamaican brethren routinely sang with full force following the usually very energetic song leaders' direction. (The quality of these traditional Protestant hymns have merely confirmed my discontent with the present-time UCG hymnal, whose selections simply can't equal the songs the Jamaican brethren sang so well from the CGI hymnal, photocopied handouts, and from memory alone at the song leaders' promptings). One particularly pleasing aspect of the congregational singing was how a few would sing the parts without prompting from the song leader, thus creating a very pleasing euphonic effect. There were also a number of special music solos (often without accompaniment) and performances by a choir with about 15 members. The choir sang in both classical European style as well as in the African-influenced pattern of "call and response," i.e., a lead singer alternating with the choir as a whole, along with vigorous motions of the body that kept time with the music. In a given service, the time given to special music pieces often approximated that given to sermonettes in the typical COG service. The brethren who watched a baptism in the ocean by the beach on Monday sang several moving hymns that fit the ceremony without accompaniment as well. Interestingly, Mr. Boyne himself is a highly talented and enthusiastic singer, and sometimes he would sing from the pulpit himself.
THE JAMAICAN COG MODEL: AN EXPORTABLE PARADIGM
Because of the dynamism of Pastor Boyne and others in the Jamaican CGI, not to mention how God's Holy Spirit can move them, this group of God's people had practices that others in the COG elsewhere should seriously consider applying. Especially we in the UCG should consider how the "Jamaican model" for the COG is one for export, not just indigenous use, since the evident cultural differences between (say) the U.S. and Jamaica do not render their innovations as irrelevant to brethren of other nations.
The CGI's services in Jamaica were more participatory for the laity, which follows from the African cultural heritage that the vast majority of Jamaicans share in. Often when Pastor Boyne or some other speaker from the pulpit had made a particularly telling point, one or more listening would audibly, even loudly, affirm it, which again is the African-originated pattern of "call and response." I suspect many in America in the COG, who would prefer a more staid, restrained worship style, would be uncomfortable with the Jamaicans' freer, more expressive worship style. Actually, there's much to recommend the latter, especially in the way the Jamaicans did it in the CGI. It did not involve people getting out of their seats and into the aisles or into any of the assorted bedlam associated with Pentecostalist churches. It did not interrupt the speakers' natural pauses, or create undue distractions from their messages. It has an obvious value in giving the speaker feedback about his performance, about when his points are good, bad, or indifferent. It also gives his listeners a way to express their faith verbally before others. I suspect also that, by giving the listeners an ability to express themselves, it makes it easier for them to avoid fatigue and to pay continual attention to the speakers, although that's rarely a problem when Pastor Boyne or Brother Ramocan have mounted the pulpit. Interestingly, the service at which the Jamaican brethren made the most frequent audible affirmations at the speaker's points occurred when Pastor Boyne defended the Sabbath as a doctrine. Evidently, because of the presence of about 30 potentially hostile outsiders, the Jamaican brethren felt it necessary to express their support for the speaker more than usual. Although such cultural practices can be so hard to change, we Americans should give some thought to considering how we could "loosen" up more our worship style. After all, should we listen to ministers giving sermons in a way indistinguishable from how we listen to professors lecture in college? We must remember that God created us to be beings of emotion as well as reason. Emotion is to help us by making us more committed, consistent, and faithful to God in the conclusions our reason draws. Interestingly, Pastor Boyne's sermons themselves strike the balance well between emotion and reason, since they are remarkable examples of controlled power. His own emotions while speaking help draw in the congregation's feelings and sentiments, yet his messages remain coherent and make strong rational arguments based on Scripture or logic for the points he wishes his audience to learn.
EVANGELISM DURING THE FEAST
Perhaps the most striking innovation at the Feast was the day (Sunday) devoted to street evangelism and a campaign service proclaiming the truth of the Sabbath. Brethren, including even American members, handed out leaflets which announced the truth of the Sabbath and which invited members of the public to come to the special evening service that Sunday. The meeting was also announced in an ad in the local newspaper. During the Feast, services usually began at 10:00 AM, but the Sunday service was placed in the early evening in order to give time for the brethren to hand out the leaflets. Earlier in the week, even before the leaflets were available, while I bought some Jamaican stamps for my stamp collection, the long-time member who escorted me about town invited two post office employees to come to the upcoming Sunday service. While one, true, had no interest at all, the other seems quite open-minded about possibly coming. That evening about 30 people from the local community and elsewhere who weren't already part of the COG showed up. They heard Mr. Boyne powerfully present the Sabbath truth in a highly sophisticated manner that dealt with many of the standard objections made against its observance. A stock of UCG booklets dealing with the Sabbath and life after death, brought from Canada by UCG members who were Jamaicans by birth, was quickly exhausted. Only 10 copies of the Sabbath booklet were available, when about 30 were required. (Despite being a CGI pastor, Mr. Boyne used the UCG booklet because he felt it was the best COG booklet on this subject presently available). Some man, right off the street who had nothing to do with the COG, even came in and made a videotape of Mr. Boyne's presentation. Hence, Pastor Boyne's work that night may influence still others who weren't present there.
LOCAL AND CENTRALIZED EVANGELISM CAN BE USED IN TANDEM
These methods of local and personal evangelism cost relatively little, yet were effective in bringing people in to at least listen to the truth of the Sabbath. We who were in the WCG in the past need to discard the notion that local evangelism can't be done simultaneously with a larger centralized media work. The two need not be contradictory, especially when the resources used by the local churches, since they rely on labor more than money, would take relatively few resources from a larger, big-time media work using TV or glossy magazines. The either-or mentality, of saying EITHER the COG should have a centralized media work OR local and personal efforts, is a fundamentally false conundrum. The Jamaican brethren, led humanly by Ian Boyne, can see its fallacy. This year, the Jamaican church, which has about 150 or so in attendance, has already baptized about 15 members. While there I repeatedly encountered people who were very new to the truth, who had attended for under two years. One of the best sermons given at this site, by George Ramocan, was by an unordained man who had been attending the COG for less than a year and a half. These aren't "recycled" people, who had gone from one COG group to another, but are new people from the world whom God has called.
Instead of just sitting in our own small groups being glad we found God's truth, we should be much more active in proclaiming God's truth to an unconverted world like our Jamaican brethren. The general lack of growth by comparison in the U.S. for the COG shows new approaches are necessary. We in the local churches shouldn't merely sit around waiting to see if the HQ or HO will get an effective centralized media work together, but should also do our own part in evangelization. Similarly, the HQs of the larger COG organizations should be willing to delegate some of the work of evangelization to the field ministry and local churches, since the latter's efforts, due to their relatively labor-intensive, money-nonintensive nature, should be mainly seen as supplementary and not in competition to the resources a centralized media effort uses. The fact the Jamaican brethren, who are so much more poorer monetarily than the typical North American COG congregation, seem to be bearing so much more fruit through evangelism than we are speaks volumes about our relative ineffectiveness. True, since Jamaican society is more overtly religious than much of American society, the handing out of leaflets in person on the streets might need to be emended to just dropping them off inside people's doors without knocking or discussing their contents (much as a mailman makes a delivery) with those who live there. Nevertheless, a more aggressive approach to evangelization by laymembers may well be necessary to ensure that our numbers don't decline because of the high average age of our membership. (This results from a much higher percentage of the second generation falling away than the first generation in the WCG's apostasy).
A SERVICE THAT USED SMALL DISCUSSION GROUPS
On Thursday during the Feast, another striking innovation during the CGI Feast in Ocho Rios appeared. After Pastor Boyne spoke relatively briefly to set the basic subject, the congregation was broken down into cells or small groups of ten or more each to discuss them for about 35 minutes. Then there was a series of reports by the seven group leaders (who were, by design, not those who regularly mount the pulpit) to the congregation as a whole about the ideas the groups had. The main subject concerned how much Christians should sacrifice when God's law conflicts with some worldly desire or goal, such as when keeping the Holy Days costs someone a job (i.e., economic security). In his introduction, Pastor Boyne asked about whether we have a Christianity of convenience, and used the examples of traditional Christians (including Jehovah's Witnesses) who spend much more time serving God and/or who sacrificed much more than we in the COG often do. Pastor Boyne explained to me personally that he deliberately included this activity in order that the laymembership's thoughts could be revealed clearly to those in leadership positions. Although he is a strong defender of an ordained ministry having final authority in the congregation, he sees it as absolutely necessary that the laity be given the ability to express itself as well. By using such a deliberate measure, top-down rule of the congregation is made compatible with mobilizing the ideas and talents of the laity in the service of God.
THE "SINGLES MINGLE" USED A GUIDED GROUP DISCUSSION
The "singles mingle," lead by Paul O'Connor (a deacon who is working on an M.A. in theology) also used a partially bottom-up approach as well. Mr. O'Connor deliberately asked the singles present for subjects to fill his agenda with before leading a group discussion that went through them one by one over a period of about two hours. He said that he had subject(s) prepared if none were volunteered, but he hoped to receive suggestions, which he did get. The agenda ended up covering about four basic subjects, including the problem of singles being socially invisible to the married when the latter have social activities and how to deal with sexual tension/frustration. The problem of marrying in the church was also dealt with. As it progressed, the group discussion became remarkably open, frank, and wide-ranging, especially by standard COG American standards.
THE HERBERT W. ARMSTRONG MEMORIAL AWARD SPEAKING CONTEST
On Friday night, the Herbert W. Armstrong Memorial Award presentation was another opportunity for laymembers who rarely or never speak to the congregation as whole to express themselves on a set theological topic. Each contestant for the prize, which included a trophy (which would change hands each year) and Jamaican and American money, could speak no more than 15 minutes. Since the subject was to expose the fallacies in the Pentecostalist understanding of tongues as non-human languages, their objective was to refute decisively that teaching by making as many good points against it in the time allowed. Consequently, over a period of about two hours, the speakers analyzed Acts 2 and I Cor. 14 in-depth. There were seven contestants, including one woman (Sister Hinton). Since the runner up came so close to winning, she ultimately received $1000 (in Jamaican, which is equal to about $28 U.S.) After the seven had spoken and two hymns were sung, Pastor Boyne skillfully kept the congregation in suspense as he deliberately delayed announcing the decision by several congregational leaders (including himself) about who had won while the two highest ranking contestants waited on the platform. Pastor Boyne intends to open up the contest for international visitors in future years. Since such prizes as the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Templeton are also named after specific men, Pastor Boyne strongly denies that it is "cultic" or "idolizing a man" to name a prize after the man whom God used to reveal and spread to the world the Bible's long-concealed doctrines that traditional Christianity has largely or completely ignored.
ORGANIZED SOCIAL ACTIVITIES DURING THE FEAST
There also were a number of group activities, all intended to help the brethren fellowship with one another and discourage people without much money or who didn't plan much from just watching TV in the evenings. These included the sports day activities, a chance to climb Dunn's River Falls (a leading tourist attraction), a barbecue on the beach at night, and a picnic at Cranbrook gardens. The Family Fun show was full of the talent of the Jamaican brethren in music, singing, and acting. One skit featured two brethren sitting behind a mock TV set in which one read questions by viewers about personal and family problems, to which the other, posing as an advice-giving minister, gave uproariously funny out-of-context quotes from Scripture as replies. Two of the brethren wrote a play that took up a good part of its time that night. It featured Brother Smith playing a minister whose words, ideas, and mannerisms seemed suspiciously similar to Pastor Boyne's! Besides the quiz finals, there was also a rap session for couples and another one earlier in the week for the younger people. The Family Fun show, the picnic at Cranbrook gardens, and the barbecue on the beach were the most well-attended events. The relative scarcity of Jamaican brethren at Dunn's River Falls on Thursday compared strong turnout of international visitors present (five, i.e., most of those present at the CGI site) shows that most of the former must have climbed the landmark featured on the back of the Jamaican $100 bill enough times before!
HOW HIERARCHY CAN DEVELOP, NOT JUST SUPPRESS, THE LAITY'S TALENTS
Perhaps the greatest overall lesson to be learned from the Jamaican COG model is that careful management from those in authority can develop and use to God's glory the talents of the laity to a greater extent than the latter would do on their own, instead of merely controlling and suppressing them. The direction of the laymembers' spiritual gifts by the ordained can lead to their greater development and use, not to their suppression. Hence, although Pastor Boyne lead in organizing the evangelistic campaign service that defended the Sabbath by speaking for it and writing the pro-Sabbath tracts the lay brethren handed out, it was the latter who actively went about sharing their faith with the general public as they handed out the tracts. This approach sharply differs from HWA's belief the laity was mainly to delegate to and to support the preaching of the Gospel to a centralized media work through with their tithes, offerings, and prayers. The speakers at the Herbert W. Armstrong Memorial Prize contest were all laymembers who rarely or never ever spoke to the congregation as a whole. It helped them develop their abilities to research a topic, organize their thoughts coherently, and publicly defend a teaching of the COG. Similar to how Spokesman Club helped develop the speaking abilities of laymen in the WCG over the years, this contest (in a more limited fashion) similarly helps laymembers use their natural talents and spiritual gifts better as it honors the memory of HWA. Then consider the special service that broke the congregation down into small discussion groups. The assigned group leaders were not those who normally spoke from the pulpit, yet they gave the reports to the congregation as a whole about their groups' conclusions. This approach allowed the "bottom" to state its ideas to "the top" on a topic in a fairly direct way, instead of just listening to "the top" preach to it from the pulpit week to week. By choosing this way to organize one service, Pastor Boyne and others in the local leadership expressed their willingness to hear thoughts they might disagree with expressed in a public setting. The "Singles Mingle" was an excellent example of the advantages of a guided group discussion. Had the singles been left to their own devices, it would be unlikely such a disparate group in personal backgrounds would have gathered into one room at one time to discuss anything related to their special needs. Someone in authority really had to organize this event, or it wouldn't have happened with this many in attendance. The group discussion allowed all of those present to speak to those gathered their thoughts on the issues at hand, and most spoke at least once. Yet there was a need for a moderator and organizer of the discussion (here, Brother O'Connor, a deacon and a single man himself) to keep it from, on the one hand, from spinning out of control onto irrelevant tangents or contentious arguments or running out of steam and dying completely. He solicited topics for discussion from those present, and didn't just lecture to us on some set subject he had chosen before arriving. Even such a practice as the "call and response" pattern of the Jamaican brethren giving audible feedback to the speakers in the pulpit involved those with authority allowing the laity to express its natural emotional response to what they heard. The bottom line of the "Jamaican Model" for the COG is that, the ordained, with their careful, deliberate management, can nurture and guide into more productive paths the gifts, talents, and ideas of the laymembers as they serve God compared to when the latter would be just left to their own devices. The mere fact some hold authority over others in the Christian congregation need not cause the ordained to be controllers and suppressers of the laity's abilities, so long as the former consciously seek ways to help develop and use the spiritual gifts of the latter in the service of God. The solution to the defects of the WCG's authoritarian structure under the elderly HWA that excessively controlled and stifled the laity isn't anarchy or egalitarian democracy (neither of which is reconcilable with Scripture), but a reformed, paternalistic hierarchy that actively seeks to help develop the spiritual gifts and character of laymembers through their guidance and example. If we in the COG generally can learn this lesson, the Jamaican COG model as expressed at this Feast of Tabernacles could help the whole Church of God to avoid not just the Scylla of authoritarianism, but the Charybdis of anarchy and congregationalism as well.
APPENDIX: ADVICE TO WOULD-BE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL VISITORS TO OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA
If you, in some future year, would be interested in having the unique experience of attending a Feast in Jamaica, there are certain things worth knowing that can make your visit smoother. One interesting cultural difference between the U.S. and Jamaica is that in America, people usually introduce themselves by giving their first names only, while in Jamaica, they usually give just their last names. In at least the CGI congregation in Jamaica, frequently the practice is (which I have used in writing this essay) to refer to others in the congregation by calling them "Sister X" or "Brother Y," with the "X" and "Y" usually being the last name, but sometimes the first name. Although someone surely might criticize this last practice as "Protestant," there's nothing in Scripture against it. Why do we in the COG have to be so mindlessly anti-traditional Christianity that we automatically, by some sort of reverse psychology, insist on doing the exact opposite of the world's churches, when sometimes their practices may be perfectly in line with Scripture? For song services, it would be of value to bring the maroon covered (1993) WCG hymnal if you don't have the CGI hymnal, since there's some overlap in the selections. (This year the CGI has come out with a new hymnal of its own, making the blue one obsolete). In addition, Global has a congregation in Jamaica of roughly 50-60 members which also met in Ocho Rios this year for the Feast of Tabernacles, along with about 50 or so international vistors.
HARASSMENT FEARS EXAGGERATED, AT LEAST FOR OCHO RIOS
Although I was warned before going that I, as a seemingly "rich white American," might be frequently harassed by vendors and beggars in Jamaica, in fact in Ocho Rios (pop., 7800) this is not true. Because of these warnings, for much of the Feast I carefully made sure I was either driven around or walked around with brethren as (ahem) escorts. But then, on Friday as the Sabbath (and the end of the Feast) approached I decided to walk down Main Street to buy some Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee for my coffee-fanatical relatives at a standard grocery store (not an obvious tourist trap place catering to foreigners). The streets were absolutely thronged with people getting off work and school, as this was around 5 to 6 PM. Yet I got hardly a comment or request to buy or give away anything. Earlier in the week was the only time I saw an actual beggar in Ocho Rios, an evidently blind man who creatively made music with an old hand saw. (Once, years ago, when I went to downtown Detroit to take a teacher's certification test, I got hit up by two beggars/panhandlers between going into the building and coming out. That's two more than who approached me during the whole time I was in Jamaica). Later, when I walked downtown on one Monday morning to mail some postcards, when relatively few were around, one person tried to solicit me to buy something very briefly, but since I wasn't very close to his stall, a simple brief polite statement of no interest was enough to dispatch him. It seems that harassment would come if you go into an area where the street vendors' stalls are gathered together, such as near Dunn's River Falls, where I experienced the closest thing to an aggressive attempt to sell me merchandise. (More determinedly, just before a U.S. Virgin islands' man was publicly baptized by Mr. Boyne during the Feast at the beach, someone approached me as a fishing guide (I think), but he readily accepted a single polite refusal). But if you are interested in the handicrafts (I wasn't), and you walk around these vendors to browse, then you've chosen to put yourself in the "line of fire." Otherwise, if you walk determinedly, with purpose, to a set destination, and don't idly wander about and pause to ask questions about where something is, you, as "the ugly American," shouldn't have too much trouble with people bothering you, at least in Ocho Rios, which is a tourist area somewhat used to foreign whites wandering about from the cruise ships that dock there, etc. (Nothing here said should be extrapolated to Jamaica's capital, Kingston, which is a very different kettle of fish, which I never went to). This, it should be noted, is based on a single white man's experience--I'm not sure how much more trouble a single white woman walking around would experience or feel. True, the standard security measures are inescapable--guards, gates, and fences are de rigueur at establishments where foreign tourists stay. Nevertheless, it still seems the warnings I received about the amount of harassment that would come my way was seriously exaggerated. [I=ve since found, in visits in 1999 and 2003, there is quite a lot of harassment when one walks alone without a native Jamaican escort. If one wishes to help the poor and/or buy off the hustlers, put money in a separate pocket from where one=s wallet is, such as some $50 Jamaican bills, so one doesn=t have to pull out one=s wallet to help them, thus exposing it to potential theft].
OTHER "TONGUES": BRITISH ENGLISH AND THE JAMAICAN PATOIS
The Jamaicans speak a patois based on English as well as standard British English. When they switch into the patois, you as a foreigner aren't going to be able to understand much of what they are saying, but they can easily accommodate you and instantaneously switch back. In most public speaking situations, such as from the pulpit, standard English is spoken almost exclusively, besides a few words from the patois occasionally thrown in. Pastor Boyne is fond of the patois term "alof" (sp?), which seems to mean either "wait!" or "listen!," a predilection Brother Smith made ample use of in the play he cowrote and acted in for the Family Fun night. During one of his sermons, Pastor Boyne got big laughs for one line following his use of the patois: After imitating a parent speaking in the patois to get his or her lazy children out of bed in the morning for school, he apologized to the international visitors for speaking in tongues! During the Family Fun show, the effectiveness of at least one of the skits depended heavily on the patois. Sister Smith, a young woman with a definite stage presence, appeared alone on stage dressed in (evidently) a traditional Jamaican outfit, topped off by a very large hat. In her stand-up act, she spoke almost exclusively in the patois, and got simply uproarious laughs from the Jamaican brethren, but the jokes simply flew high over the heads of Americans like me. While there are Jamaicans who can only speak the patois, I didn't encounter this during the CGI Feast among any church members that I talked to. Although you may have to ask one or twice for something to be repeated in some situations in order to understand it, since they would be speaking British English with a Jamaican accent, there's no real language barrier here, unlike the case when you would visit (say) Mexico. Furthermore, even should you encounter those who can only speak the patois, they often still can understand you as you speak standard English to them.
Northern Jamaica is the great tourist trap zone of Jamaica. To get from Montego Bay, where the international airport is, to Ocho Rios involves a trip that consumes between 90 minutes to 2 hours. Since the highways in Jamaica are shoulderless, curvy, two-lane roads frequently crossed by itinerant, unpenned farm animals, renting a car to drive yourself in Jamaica is an operation limited to the adventurous and/or experienced. Further complicating matters, cars are driven on the left side of the road as in Britain, which makes, at least to me, right turns at intersections particularly confusing. In the airport, the staff is very well organized to help tourists get to their destinations even when you know basically nothing about Jamaica. You seem to get funneled into an area where you are approached by a uniformed cabby about where and how you want to go somewhere. When I was told it would cost $70 (U.S.) to get to Ocho Rios by cab, I thought that sounded fairly cheap by American standards, since it is a trip of 50 miles one way, and the cabby (inevitably) returns home empty. But the Jamaican brethren repeatedly told me that was a simply outrageous rip-off by their standards, even though it is the standard rate quoted at the airport. [In 2003, when I expressed some resistance to going alone at the stated official charge of $90 US, the driver quickly went down to $50, although (being nice) I said I=d pay him $55. I later paid him about this amount or more in Jamaican dollars]. Taking a large tourist bus in would be substantially cheaper (one charged $20 U.S. per person), although I suspect you may have to wait for them. [In 1999, I shared a bus ride with another family going to the Feast I met on the plane, which greatly cut the cab fare expenses]. You could take one of the ubiquitous minibuses (which look like the old VW buses, but these are Japanese, as are most Jamaican cars), which are the cheapest way to go, but they aren't especially safe for international visitors to use. Hence, depending on how much second tithe you have, it may be best to take the large tour bus option as it is available, unless you can share the price of a cab with others going to the same destination. Curiously, many Jamaican cars still have the steering wheels on the left side of the car, not the right, because it's easier to import cars directly from the U.S. As he drives such a car, it's harder for the driver to see clearly ahead to pass safely a car in front of him since he can't see down the middle of the road from the right side of the car. The cabby who drove me in from the airport had the steering wheel this way, which meant he asked me (as I sat in the right front seat) about what was ahead once or twice before passing a car in front of us.
Although Jamaican law requires all transactions in currency to be paid in Jamaican dollars, this law is routinely and constantly flouted, at least in Ocho Rios. In two different fancy restaurants I was in, the menu prices were only in U.S. dollars, not Jamaican. The cabby who brought me in from the airport preferred to be paid in U.S. dollars, but I paid him a bit more in Jamaican money. There's no question that the U.S. dollar serves as a parallel currency in Jamaica, at least in the north. (Consequently, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, not only controls America's economy substantially through monetary policy, but (inadvertently) has significant direct control over Jamaica's! Somehow, I doubt that Jamaica's economy is a major consideration when the Fed makes its decisions!) The best place to exchange money is at a bank, not at the airport or hotel. The airport's bureau de exchange and the hotel I stayed at (Sand Castles) gave me $34 Jamaican for each $1 U.S., but one bank in Ocho Rios gave me $36.30 for each $1 U.S. You may need to change some money at the airport in order to get to your destination elsewhere and to buy some food, but if you can (depending on the time of day and day of week of your arrival), try to delay converting your travelers checks and/or U.S. currency until you can get into a regular bank during regular business hours. You can also make an end run around all this by using charge cards, which will automatically allow you to pay for things priced in Jamaican dollars without any hassle, if the place you're at takes them. Despite the apparently impressive premium gained as you convert American dollars into Jamaican, in fact many things are more expensive in Jamaica than the U.S. when you convert the prices back. If it is a food item imported from the U.S., my rule of thumb is that the actual price doubles. For example, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail costs about $3 here in a standard grocery store, but there it costs about $200 Jamaican, which approaches $6 U.S. On the other hand, it seems hard liquor (at least for the gin I bought) is about the same price as it is here, perhaps even marginally cheaper. It's worth remembering that a Jamaican $100 bill is about $3 U.S., and a $500 is about $14 U.S. in order to avoid grossly overpaying for something. A crude estimate of relative prices can be gained by multiplying all prices in Jamaican dollars by 3 cents, and then dividing by 100 (i.e., shift two decimal points to the left). [The Jamaican dollar, in 2003, has sunk to $60 per $1 US].
If you are someone who likes broad beaches, white sand, ocean views, and hot weather (even in October), Jamaica is a great place to go. Its heat and humidity admittedly were sometimes a lot to bear. This is a bad place to wear suits where there is no air conditioning. You will still want to run your air conditioner even at night. I shudder at the thought of having to work as hard as the Jamaican slaves did (before its abolition in 1832), that is, all day outdoors under the hot sun tending sugar cane in July or August. On some days, it was bad enough just standing around in a suit outside the hotel in October! Walking about a mile to the pool/spring at Cranbrook gardens generated plenty of uncomfortable sweat even without a suit on. The ocean water is marvelously warm, even in October. It takes little time getting used to when you go in. During the Feast, it rained in the mornings or at night some, but it wasn't an all-day long phenomenon in any case, since it would do its business in (say) an hour or so, and be done for the rest of the day.