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Lively, hilarious Jamaica, where even the bamboo moves to a reggae beat

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Jamaica is, as the advertisements say, not just a beach, but a country. A noisy, crowded, hilarious country. Inside that scalloped ring of white sand and warm, utterly clear water, there's a lot going on. Jamaican culture is assertive , which is not to say aggressive, but you should go there because you're interested in Jamaicans and a tan. Millions of radios thump out the curious, lagging reggae beat. And the lush landscape is not, by any means, unpopulated.

I was riding down the Rio Grande on a bamboo raft somewhere behind Port Antonio. Errol, my rafter, poled. Blue and white herons stroked across the sky. We came around a bend to find a lovely meadow on one side, a mountain on the other, with bamboo trees shaking like big green feather dusters in the wind.

''Zuguzugugu zuguzeng!'' boomed a loud, silly voice. The hills were alive with the sound of Yellow Man, a popular disc jockey, yakking his nonsense verses , which were pouring from a radio perched in the crotch of a tree, company for the peanut and drink vendor floating nearby on his raft.

It wasn't exactly the forest primeval, but it all went together. The music was happy, the bamboo was nodding, the river gurgled, and people did their laundry along the other bank.

They didn't get in the way of the mountains stacked with bamboo trees that creak in the wind, coconut palms, and pimento trees with allspice-scented leaves. In the midst of almost supernatural beauty, the slow bustle of Jamaican doings, full of song and dance, jokes and choice remarks, offers relief, sometimes comic. The Blue Mountains are so massive and, well, blue, they can make your heart ache. Until you see a row of nine-year-old boys in the foreground, moving like oil derricks or pawing the air like cartoon bunnies to the ubiquitous national beat.

It takes a few days of eavesdropping to understand the patois they speak here. It's English, but at first it sounds so foreign you don't bother to listen. Familiar words are disguised by accenting unexpected syllables. Figure out the rhythm, and you will be rewarded with what V.S. Naipaul called ''a Welsh feeling for rhetoric.'' It comes out in ordinary ways.

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