“My music will go on forever. Maybe it’s a fool say that, but when me know facts me can say facts. My music will go on forever.” – Bob Marley
OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA – Bob Marley died at age 36 from skin cancer. His family, however, believes the reggae superstar was actually poisoned.
Bob Marley’s father, Captain Norval Marley, was a white sea captain from Liverpool, England, sent to Jamaica to oversee plantations. His mother, Cedella Booker, was a Jamaican.
Some say he never knew his father. Others say the Englishman who died when his son was 10 played an important part in the future musician’s early life.
Myths often surround a man who becomes a “Legend.”
And it can be hard to find the truth in all the lore. Such is the case with Bob Marley.
“You hear so many things about Bob Marley and many of them aren’t true,” says guide Gary Dalling. “On this tour we are going to try to set the facts straight.”
“That,” Gary says, pointing to a large photo shellacked inside our van of a stern-faced man wearing a dress shirt and tie, “is Bob Marley’s father. That is the truth.”
When the Carnival Breeze docked in Ocho Rios in Jamaica, we had a ton of tours we could take. One of the most popular was a visit to Dunn’s River Falls where visitors can climb the 600-foot waterfall. I did that years ago and might have done it again had I not noticed a blurb under the shore excursion’s Cultural Tours called the Bob Marley Bus Adventure. Lasting almost six hours, the tour cost $89.99 per person.
It turned out to be quite a trip.
The tour is almost two in one. First, it gives you a glimpse of Jamaica that many visitors never see. Second, it shares an in-depth look at the life of Jamaica’s famous son, Bob Marley.
Limited to about 26 people, our group followed our tour guide from the pier to a very colorful bus. The inside of the bus is plastered everywhere with pictures of Bob Marley, his quotes, his album covers, his concert tickets. No air conditioning but the windows open and a few fans stir the air. Before we even leave the pier parking lot, the bus driver Alan hands us rum drinks through the bus windows. Strong on the rum.
Bottles of chilled water also are kept in a cooler for us. The rum and the water are both complimentary and will be passed out again on our tour. That is important to note because Jamaica has a bad reputation – deservedly so in many case – of overcharging for almost anything. Once on a Jamaica rafting trip down the Martha Brae, a man on shore tossed a small popsicle stick raft into the water by our boat. I reached out to keep the trinket from sinking. Then the man met us ashore to collect $20 for the knick-knack. Jamaican vendors and beggars can be quite aggressive.
For our reggae bus adventure, we were quickly on our way with Bob Marley music rolling out from a good PA system and our guide overriding the music to point out landmarks or share interesting info. Our guide is knowledgeable, articulate, funny and very professional.
“When Bob Marley was singing all these love songs, people said he was getting soft. So he wrote this song,” Gary says, blasting “I Shot the Sheriff” as our bus bumped along.
I don’t know why but the singer is seldom referred to as Bob or as Marley in Jamaica. In fact, almost everyone I encountered on this tour called him Bob Marley or superstar legend Bob Marley.
The first part of our trip is the thrilling drive into the mountains. “We are all going to get high,” Gary says, noting that we will soon be looking down on some spectacular sights. He was right.
The “roads” are more like zigzag cow paths. The higher we go, the rougher and narrower they get. “If you are afraid of dying, don’t look down,” Gary warns at one point, adding a few miles later that we should keep our arms and hands inside the bus.
“And you might want to learn toward the aisle a little bit,” he notes as tree branches reach inside our bus windows. I ended up with a lap full of leaves.
In Jamaica, they drive on the opposite side of how Americans drive. “The right side is suicide in Jamaica,” Gary says.
I don’t know what they pay our bus driver Alan but I hope it is good wages. He certainly earns it. A couple of times he would have to back down a steep hill so another vehicle could pass us. Pulling a little string to blare a horn, Alan mostly barrels safely ahead leaving a cloud of dust and noisy horn blasts.
“We blow our horns in Jamaica to say ‘Good morning,’ ‘Hello,’ or ‘Get the hell out of the way.’ When you can’t see around the curves in the road, it’s a good idea to let other drivers know you’re coming,” Gary explains.
Leaving Ocho Rios and “civilization” behind, we are seeing the “real Jamaica,” Gary says. Lush greenery. Rolling hills. Shacks. Scrawny goats. Clothes drying on the line. Half-built houses (It often takes several generations before a house is finished, Gary says). Friendly people. Immense poverty.
“Those children don’t have flush toilets but they are happy,” Gary says, pointing to some youngsters walking along the road. “You can starve in the city. You won’t starve out here because you can grow what you want … Our bauxite soil is so rich that if you stand still in it for very long, you will start growing, too.”
About an hour and a half into our tour, we pull off for a rest stop and a snack, a complimentary spicy meat patty and a chance to buy some Red Stripe beer at a circular outdoors bar. This is the same clean place we will stop on our way back down the hills for a traditional jerk meal included in our trip cost– jerked chicken, jerked beef, rice, peas, slightly sweet bread, some kind of fruit drink. Cooked and served by a very nice Jamaican lady, the lunch is delicious and a true taste of Jamaica.
After lunch we are enter Nine Mile in St. Ann Parish – the birthplace of Robert Nestor Marley on Feb. 6, 1945. “His father was 50. His mother was 18,” Gary says. “His father had two women here, one in Kingston. He didn’t stay with Bob Marley’s mother.”
As our bus pulls into a high-fenced compound run by the Marley family, Gary alerts us that vendors will try to sell us marijuana and other pot paraphernalia as soon as we step off the bus. And beggars will be asking for money. “Just say ‘no’ and follow me,” he says.
Or indulge on the site. But don’t bring it back on the bus.
Inside the compound, a security guard eats his lunch in a guard shack. A large sign notes that “Smoking of marijuana is illegal and persons can be persecuted.” (Don’t know why smokers would be “persecuted,” instead of “prosecuted.” Maybe that is the way Jamaicans really feel about marijuana being illegal.)
Not far from the guard, a window hole in the wall is quickly filled with a row of big marijuana stogies. Some cruisers walk over to look, some to buy. Joints are $20 and are potent, a couple of smokers tell me. “No pictures. No video,” shout several men with long dreadlocks lounging near the gate.
Next we go through the obligatory over-priced gift shops to a restroom where the toilets won’t flush and a bar where Reggae Shooter drinks are about $13. Meeting our guide Fozzie, we make a quick stop to hear a group of reggae singers on a stage with the omnipresent tip jar. “Tip them. Fill that jar up,” Fozzie says.
When we leave, Fozzie will stand by a closed gate and open it wide enough so tour participants need to pass through one at a time, the better to make sure he gets his tips. “It’s Jamaica,” Gary shrugs.
A small museum contains some of Bob Marley’s gold records and other awards, plus a guitar. The dwelling where Bob Marley was born doesn’t look the way it originally did – the government renovated it – but this is the place.
“Six months later, his mom take the baby up on the hill to Sugar Hill or Mt. Zion,” Fozzie says, leading the way to a two-room shack where he says Bob Marley spent the first 13 years of his life.
On the steep climb (this is not a tour for anyone with mobility problems), we pass by a tall steel wall where little fingers have dug a small hole, just big enough to reach through from the outside to the place where we are climbing. Holding a cellophane candy wrapper taped to a long stick stuck through the fence, a child begs, “Pretty lady, dollar, please.”
At the top of the hill, we see the Rasta-colored stone pillow on which a young Bob lay his head when seeking inspiration. Inside the tiny two-room shack is the “single bed” he sang about. A stone pile in the yard is topped by a flowerpot with a healthy marijuana plant.
Fozzie instructs us to remove our shoes before we enter two mausoleums – one is the final resting place of Bob’s mother, the other is where Bob is entombed. Two children halfway up a tree over the high fence near the mausoleum are begging for dollars.
“His mother die in 2008 at 82 years of age,” Fozzie says. “No sickness. It was just her time to die.”
Bob Marley, however, died far too early. And his death may have been prevented, some say.
A jogger and fitness devotee, Bob injured his toe playing soccer in 1977. When it wouldn’t heal, he went to a doctor who said the singer was suffering from malignant melanoma – skin cancer. The doctor recommended amputating the toe.
Although his medical records were never made public, it is believed that Bob underwent a skin graft instead of amputation. But the procedure did not stop the spread of cancer. By the end of 1980, Bob Marley’s health began deteriorating at an alarming rate.
While performing in September 1980 in New York, Bob collapsed on stage. It was discovered this time around that the untreated cancer had spread to the rest of his body, including his brain. There is speculation that he underwent controversial last-minute cancer treatment in Germany under holistic physician Josel Issels to try and save his life.
That is where some family members say that Bob was poisoned by the doctor because of Bob’s outspoken revolutionary stances. After all, someone had tried to shoot Bob in Dec. 3, 1976. Bob, his wife Rita and his manager were all wounded when bullets were fired on his Kingston home.
In Germany, the reggae star soon realized that his cancer was terminal. He wanted to return home. On the flight from Germany to Jamaica, Bob’s condition became so critical that the plane had to land in Miami. On the morning of May 11, 1981, at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, Bob died.
The stone mausoleum where Bob is entombed with his red Gibson Les Paul guitar (some say it was a Fender Stratocaster) is filled with candles, photos, notes, flowers and other mementos from fans. The singer left a dozen or so children from six or seven different mothers.
Buried in the mausoleum beneath Bob Marley is his half brother who was accidentally killed by police in Miami. “Bob Marley died in Miami. His mother died in Miami. Hs brother died in Miami,” Fozzie says. “I am not going to Miami.”
The controversy didn’t end with Bob Marley’s death. He died without a will which spawned court actions for years. The ownership of Bob’s body also was disputed. Several years ago, Bob Marley’s widow Rita wanted to move his body from Jamaica to Ethiopia.
“The Jamaican government stepped in and said his body couldn’t be moved because Bob Marley is a national treasure,” Fozzie says.
A strong advocate of freedom and “One Love” for all people, as well as a famed ganja smoker, Bob Marley left behind a lasting legacy and a wealth of music – 104 songs and 21 albums. I don’t know what the poor boy from the slums of Jamaica whose estate grew to the millions would think of the massive mausoleum and all the people who are making money off him, his life and his death.
Bob’s last words as reportedly spoken to his son Ziggy were, “Money can’t buy you life.”
Those words also are disputed. Maybe the truth about this reggae superstar is buried somewhere in all the untruths. And it might not matter anyway.
Bob Marley lived. He died. And his legions of loving fans keep his music, message and memory alive.
Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch