The ships dock alongside a 22-acre square fronted by restaurants and shops featuring tropical island standards (Jimmy Buffett’s soon-to-open Margaritaville, duty-free liquor stores) and local specialties (Eaton’s chutneys, Scotchies’ jerk chicken). Musicians perform in a covered crafts market with individual stalls displaying wood carvings, jewelry and homages to Bob Marley and Red Stripe beer. Stiltwalkers waving the national flag strut around the courtyard like giraffes with fresh pedicures.
Oasis had arrived in the morning, and the shopkeepers were in position, primed for the first trickle off the ship. Visitors wandered in and out of stores tucked inside Georgian-style structures built to resemble centuries-old warehouses. Another contingent, laden with beach bags, headed straight for the buses bound for Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Dunn’s River Falls.
The pier, spacious and smartly landscaped with palm trees and cobblestones, never turned into a Black Friday scene. But the cruisers definitely made the rounds. By late afternoon, Tastee had sold out of all but its beef patties, and Island Brew Cafe was turning away coffee orders.
The vendors have only a short time to make a profit. Though the days may be long, the weeks can be short. During slow season, ships might arrive only twice a week. On the dark days, the pier remains closed. “If there’s no ship,” said a Tastee employee, “we don’t work.”
To an outsider looking in, the pier resembles a tidy, exclusive walled-in compound, with clipboard-carrying uniformed guards playing bouncer. To an insider looking out, the town of Falmouth appears to be a friendly, boisterous place that yanks at you like an excited puppy on a leash. For a moment, I stood frozen on the threshold between the two.
I was meeting Delroy, a friend’s uncle, outside the terminal, on a noisy street near Water Square. As a cruiser-turned-land-tourist, I assumed that I could freely return to the port to shop and eat. The guard informed me otherwise. Only passengers and employees are permitted inside, she said. Non-cruising tourists and residents must obtain permission from the Port Authority, a process that could take a while. Thank goodness for uncles with cellphones and friends in high places.
As soon as I stepped outside the terminal, I stumbled upon Esteline Jack, who was selling souvenirs alongside the pier’s exterior wall. Unlike her counterparts inside, who pay a premium for their location, the 62-year-old has little protection from the hammering sun and the heavy sheets of rain. She also has a less reliable customer base. “You have taxis come in and take the cruisers away. We are left out,” said Jack, who was working alongside two friends. “Sometimes we are here all day and we make nothing.”
The key to daily living in Falmouth is the cruise industry’s calendar. At a gift shop on Market Street, a store clerk spread the photocopied sheets out on a table for me. I flipped through the pages: June and July were basically blank, with only six arrivals, but January was packed with ships docking four out of seven days per week.
“Are you passengers?” a pier employee shouted at Delroy and me as the Oasis prepared to leave.
I shook my head no, and we returned to the entertainment: watching cruisers sprint to the gangplank like Trelawny-born Usain Bolt. Counting down to departure time, workers in the terminal’s stores were cleaning up and closing down. They swept the floors and secured the shutters and wrapped the kiosks like mummies. In the crafts markets, vendors stuffed artworks into plastic shopping bags. While a woman came around collecting rent for the space, I scored a deal on a blue whale wood carving with the persuasive argument: “I’m it. You’re not going to get any more customers.”
At 6:50, the Oasis had freed herself of Falmouth. Delroy and I rose to leave.
Clusters of store and restaurant employees passed us, laughing and joking as they walked toward the exit. We followed them out onto the street, where some hopped into waiting cars while others headed for Water Square for an after-work beer or snack.
No one looked back at the port, including me. There was nothing to see.