As winter is upon us, many gondola operators have their boats out of the water til spring. Further south, cooler temps prompt gondoliers and their passengers to reach for warm clothes. Keep traveling south, and you'll find a totally different type of "gondola experience" going on, complete with different weather, different dress code, and a very different kind of boat.
Friends and gondola fanatics, I give you...Jamaica's gondolas!
Ok, so they're a bit far from the mark.
They're using bamboo rafts, punting with poles, and there are no striped shirts (except maybe on a passenger now and then), but the spirit of romance is part of the package.
Couples book rides on these things for some of the same reasons they would book a gondola ride elsewhere. And there are a bunch of guys who make their living on the end of a boat in ways that are similar to what we do.
I've watched some of these guys talk about their job in TV interviews, and it's clear that they love it.
With as much rainfall as the island receives, Jamaica has many rivers, and I'm told these rafting services operate on several of them.
The whole thing started with mountain farmers bringing their produce to market. The road system wasn't always what it is today, and for many of these farmers, the "family car" was a donkey. With bamboo in ready supply, these farmers would build rafts out of it, load their crops on these vesseels made from lashed-together poles, grab one more long pole for pushing and steering, and cast off.
As legend has it, in 1950, Errol Flynn was the first guy to put a seat on one and market it as a passenger excursion.
Flynn was a popular movie star, mostly famous for his roles in pirate movies. Eventually he retired to Jamaica. He is also believed to be the first to compare these 30-foot rafts to Venetian gondolas.
Tourism is the island's number one moneymaker, and visitors looking for adventure have taken to this experience.
I'm sure rivalries and friendships exist between the various rafting "servizios". The rafts are said to weigh 500 pounds or more. Some operators truck their rafts back up river, while others walk and swim them back upriver after each cruise. I've heard that some operations have a seniority-based system where the younger guys "make their bones" by hauling the rafts up for the older guys. Some things seem to be universal.
I've researched a bit, and found that some of these companies have websites, while others simply rely on outside sources (like cruise lines and hotels) to feed them clientele. Dig deeper and you're likely to find reviews of some of these services - giving an interesting view of things from a passenger's perspective.
One of the more interesting rafting tour operations is on a river known as the Martha Brae. Like many others, they include different elements of Jamaican culture into their tours.
Jamaica has a special place in my heart.
I grew up next door to a Jamaican family, have spent time on the island as a missionary and have enjoyed a few vacations there too. Sadly, I've yet to visit one of these rafting operations as I didn't know they existed until recently. Rest assured that next time I'm there, it will be on my "must do" list.