TEN years after the death of Bob Marley, the hero of Third World emancipation struggles, children in Kingston are jeering and throwing bottles at his former comrade in music, Bunny Wailer. All is not well in the home of reggae. Bob Marley exhorted Jamaican youth to ''get up stand up, stand up for your rights''. Shabba Ranks, the reigning king of the X-rated ''dance hall'' sound that has overthrown reggae as the most popular Jamaican music form, offers a different exhortation. His hit Bow Down orders women to take a sexually submissive role to men. Dance hall is an ugly sound created in a sometimes ugly city; a squalid metropolis cursed by one of the highest levels of police-related killings in the world. There were more than 700 violent deaths in Jamaica in 1990, with more than 150 attributed to the police. Kingston is no longer a city of dreadlocked Rastas whacked on ganga. Cocaine has taken hold in the ghettos and many young Jamaicans couldn't give a soggy spliff for the Marley idealism of ''one love''. All of which begs the question: why go? Well, why go to New York, which is even more dangerous, or to London, which was recently tagged Europe's crime centre? One goes because of the undeniable exhilarating ''edge'' of cultures in decline or, more simply, because the good far outweighs the bad. Jamaica remains a lush, aesthetically overwhelming and immensely enjoyable tropical island, rich in culture, history and extensive natural endowments. Certainly Trenchtown, Kingston's ghetto area bordered by burned-down petrol stations, is out of the question for a walk after dark but it is hardly alone in that distinction. I choose not to go wandering in Brixton, the Bronx, parts of Bangkok and Sydney's King's Cross as well. I suppose it's all in the eyes of the beholder, and there have been a few notables in these ranks. Noel Coward adored the place and was buried on Firefly Hill. His neighbour, Ian Fleming, wrote James Bond novels during his annual winter residence. Jamaica, at the top of the West Indian belt in the Caribbean, has a sturdy mountainous backbone which keeps half the land hovering more than 300 metres above the sea. The thick foliage which sweeps down to the fertile coastal plain and spectacular cliffs house more than 200 species of bird and over 3,000 varieties of flowering plants, 800 of which are found nowhere else in the world. In parts it is a perfumed Eden, in others a perfect replica of Scottish Highland farms or Welsh grazing land. The high air is so pure that natives who have lived well beyond the age of 100 are in plentiful supply. There are Spanish forts, ganja plantations, buccaneer lairs, grand mountain mansions, waterfalls and many beaches. I doff my hat to them all but, to be honest, I came for the people - the 21/2 million inhabitants who are as exotic as their flora and fauna. ''Out of many, one people,'' goes the idealistic national motto in a country where there is essentially no native population or native tongue and the skin tones run from Nordic to Nubian. This hybrid strain delivers flowers of great diversity, from women so astoundingly beautiful that Jamaica took the Miss World crown three times in 13 years, to glazed-eyed Rastas who ease around the streets to a languid, fluid reggae beat mainlined to the central nervous system by the various modes of mobile sound clutched to their ears. There are solid white plantation lords, fiery black preachers, monarchists, seditionists and gangsters. None of whom you could fairly describe as driven people. I was most taken by the pace of a Kingston reggae record store I sought out one afternoon. Finally granted entrance after I had pounded on the door for five minutes, I had trouble making out the racks of stock through the thick ganga smoke. When my eyes became accustomed to the haze, I realised that an entire reggae band was rehearsing in the shop, leaning comfortably against walls and record bins. They had locked themselves into a particularly hypnotic off-beat, heavy on the bass, and were in a funky holding pattern that, for all I know, could still be bubbling away. Access to the records was next to impossible and the proprietor didn't seem to register my presence in his emporium, so I eventually decided to quietly slip away and leave them to their odd reverie, taking considerable care not to let too much of the pungent smoke out the door with me. I was light-headed for days afterwards. You can go to Jamaica for Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril Beach - hedonistic haunts for hippies with a few bucks and Americans who've finally tired of Miami Beach - and you probably should because, like Bali and Phuket, they are young, racy, amusing and exciting. You can go to watch some of the most energetic and determined cricket played in any former British colony. You can go to trace the path of Spanish and British conquerors and chart the tragedy of slavery. But, I have to tell you, that I go to be jerked, so to speak. No guide worth his badge will accommodate me and even cab drivers look disbelieving when I ask to be taken to one of the corrugated iron sheds by the roadside where a white face is rarely sighted. Indeed, it is often only as a result of great perseverance that I can consume jerk pork. Jerking is a native cooking process whereby peppered pork, chicken or fish is cooked slowly under zinc over a fire of fragrant pimento wood. The younger and more choice the wood, the richer the taste of the cooked meat. You have to queue up from outside the door of the shed to purchase a half pound or more wrapped in newspaper; available at regular cooking times like proper fish 'n' chips in England. It is then de rigeur to sit out the back or around the side on a bench with the local lads, eating this rare treat with your fingers while sucking on a bottle of Pepsi. If you tire of the fairly limited menu of jerker stands, you can move on to ackee and sal' fish, peppered pigs trotters, mackerel and boiled green bananas with avocado and broiled shrimp in a coconut shell, solomon gundy (spiced pickled herring) or, the dish made famous by a Rolling Stones' album title, goat's head soup. Unquestionably, it's a banquet well worth dodging dance hall deviates and Kingston low-lifes to seek out. How to get there Fly Hongkong to Tokyo on Cathay Pacific, then transfer to American Airlines to Kingston via Los Angeles and Miami. Cost: $12,500 for an economy class return. Visa: required.