John Walsh: Tales from Jamaica

I might 'smoke one for Bob', just as Catholics might light a votive candle for St Anthony
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The Independent Online

John crows lazily patrol the blue sky like airport security men, their wingtips twitching. Jet skis hurtle and snort along the Ocho Rios riviera, blowing spouts of seawater triumphantly into the air. At Dunn's River Falls, lines of putty-coloured tourists inch their way against the torrent of water up the slithery rocks, with bowed heads and joined hands like victims of a mining disaster. Outside the Shady Grove police station (not to be confused with the Bosky Dell crime patrol or the Leafy Glade detective agency), the warning signs are in jolly rhyming couplets: "Protect your head - don't wind up dead!"

Driving along the mountain roads at St Ann, we pass comforting sights - the Fauvist lines of washing in saucy pinks and vivid blues among the purple bougainvillea, the Fifties-style adverts for Craven "A" cigarettes on weather-beaten shacks, the carved statues of unfeasibly priapic Rastamen.... Spring in upland Jamaica never changes, no matter what the news from Kingston is bringing about drive-by shootings, dancehall homophobia or Yardie drug mules. What brings you back, time and again, is what made Noël Coward and Ian Fleming build homes here in the Fifties - the vibe, the fishing boats, the night breeze, the welcoming locals.

But something new is going on now, in the person of Portia Simpson Miller, elected 10 weeks ago as the island's first-ever female Prime Minister. It's the most exciting thing to happen in years. The air is thick with "wind of change" speeches. Everyone calls her "Portia", a name that pleasingly combines Shakespeare and high-performance cars.

Newspaper cartoons show the PM as a kick-ass nursing sister bringing some sharp-pointed therapy to an establishment mired in corruption and idleness. Male columnists and pundits queue up to offer her advice on public spending and law and order, as if a mere woman probably never considered such matters before. In a country of high taxes but no welfare, where 200 Jamaicans were shot last year by police and soldiers, this Caribbean Thatcher has her work cut out.

This Thursday marks 25 years to the day since Bob Marley died, so I nipped over to his shrine to pay my respects. It's in an obscure village in the St Ann hills called Nine Mile. On the outskirts, we meet Clayton, a plausible entrepreneur selling ganja spliffs by the roadside at $5 a hit; he recommends we "smoke one for Bob", just as Catholic visitors to the sepulcre of St Anthony are urged to light a votive candle in his memory. At the gates of the Marley house, a dozen Rastamen bombard our bus with joints and stashes of cannabis, before retiring to a shack marked "Smoking Room" and scrutinising us through a hatch, like anchorites.

Talking us through the Bob Experience is the quintessentially Seventies figure of Yotta, a burly guide who likes to be called "Captain Crazy" and possesses a bellowing, four-note, stoned laugh that threatens your sanity. He tells us of Marley's strange demise - a melanoma under his toenail, worsened by his passion for playing football, spread though his whole body, outfoxed both Western and bush medicine and did for him at only 36 - and is himself an all-singing embodiment of Bob-worship.

Marley has been a secular saint and national treasure for years, but now he's approaching God-like status. The shrine is a real shrine, a marble mausoleum wherein his remains are interred with a guitar, a Bible and a spliff. Images of Bob hang beside pictures of Haile Selaisse, the original Ras Tafari, Christ of the dreadlocked faithful.

Bob is approaching similar status. An acrylic painting depicts him as the Good Shepherd tending his flock. Outside the tiny house where he grew up, you have to remove your shoes in respect. Ladies are warned not to sit on the spindly single bed "because Bob fathered 12 children". Outside, as a 10-year-old boy reaches down from an overhanging tree and offers me a bag of ganja on the end of a cloven twig, we're invited to contemplate the sacred rock where Marley used to lay his head (presumably when out of it) on sunny afternoons.

It's ridiculous, this Life of Brian mythmaking, but potent nonetheless. Marley's political influence is still strong. What became of Peter Phillips, his bush doctor in 1980? He's now a senior politician, narrowly defeated by Portia Miller in the recent elections.

I'm staying at the five-star Royal Plantation, Jamaica's only representative in The Leading Small Hotels of the World, and I'm brooding on luxury. As you submit to all manner of treats - the dizzymaking spa routines (the cranio-sacral lymphatic drainage is not for the prudish), the candlelit beach supper with the strolling chantooses singing "Me Little Pot of Coffee in the Morning", the canopy ride where you're whizzed through the palmy forest on wires, 100ft up - you realise it's only a matter of time before every hotel catches up with what the best are doing and copies them.

The secret is to refine some tiny detail of hotel life and do it first. The Plantation's new brainwave is to offer guests a pillow menu. I road-tested the main choices on your behalf. The buckwheat pillow is a sackful of corn as heavy as a horse's feedbag; you feel like you're resting on a quantity of Rice Krispies. The water-filled pillow is a hot-water bottle. The body cushion is five feet long and designed to shore up your back rather than substitute for your girlfriend. The leg spacer fits between your thighs and has no obvious function except to make you walk funny the next day. The memory (my favourite) is stiff with foam and stays cool all night.

I'm impressed by the energy that's poured into details like this; until now, I've hardly given hotel pillows a second's thought. Now if they could only address the issue of bath-plug choice, I might feel I was being properly pampered at last.