Sunday, April 6, 2014

What makes the island of Saba special

The small planes that land on the short runway of Saba

I visited the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba in 2002, only spending two days there, but the images I picked up on my trip stayed with me to this day. I've tried reading about Saba in other articles and even consulted a book called Island Wise by Janis Frawley-Holler, which describes lessons that the author learned while visiting several small islands, to see if I could put my finger on its elusive character, even compared to other small islands. In those accounts, I didn't find the quality that I was looking to describe, so I decided to try myself.

My purpose for visiting St. Martin, Saba and Statia in 2002 was to study the islands' music and interview local musicians. It required considerable preparation and even then there were unexpected events that changed my plans somewhat - mostly changes in the schedule that were not too difficult to overcome.

I tried very hard not to idealize Saba, which has problems like any other place on earth. In spite of the fact that crime is almost nil, I know from my own experience that people are in close quarters there, know each other's business, sometimes don't get along, disagree on one issue or another, may compete with their neighbors for some political favor, or face issues that may not be a problem in a larger society, such as the unavailability of items that may force them to go to nearby St. Martin to purchase them. I tried to be an impartial observer for the short time I was there.

Saba is not your typical Caribbean island. For one, it sits like a gigantic boulder in the middle of the sea, and has only one beach at Well's Bay which is submerged for much of the year. Much is made of its airport which has one of the shortest runways in the world on the only flat area on the island, appropriately named Flat Point. This very small area is at the very end of Saba and is surrounded by the sea, so making a precise landing was crucial. The plane had to fly parallel to, and very near, a high cliff on the island before landing, and it appeared as if the right wing were going to get smashed by the edge of that cliff. What was more striking to me than this image was the fact that the airplane only needed half the runway to land; it felt like a cross between a plane landing and a helicopter landing.

Many people who visit Saba are divers who want to explore the richness of its underwater life. I was decidedly a landlubber, so I was more inclined to go hiking, which has its own rewards in the variety of plants and microclimates. At dawn I took on the hike to the top of Mt. Scenery, the highest peak on the island, accessible from 1064 steps carved out of the rock. Toward the top, the terrain becomes a humid cloud forest with many varieties of ferns that benefit from the continuous mist. The top of Mt. Scenery is often covered with clouds, so the purpose is not the view but rather walking through the forest.

Saba makes an effort to standardize the color and construction of houses, all of which have a gingerbread look. (Because of this uniqueness, the island had tried applying to UNESCO to make their island a World Heritage Site.) Besides the quaintness that this look creates, what also struck me was how incredibly clean the whole island was. I don't have even a recollection of a discarded piece of paper on the ground anywhere. We who are used to seeing trash, litterbugs, dirty restrooms and the like can't help but be impressed. Another observation I made was that at nighttime the island got incredibly dark. Not that I felt unsafe, but I tried to imagine what it must have been like in a small village many years ago before street lights were the norm.

What also was noteworthy was that people felt comfortable to be more direct with the visitor, engage him/her in conversation, and wave at them even if they were strangers. Once in a bar, a young man came up to me and asked me if I would find some time to play soccer with him. I didn't get to do this with my schedule, but it just seemed interesting that he would ask me. Expats who lived on the island for any length of time exhibited these characteristics themselves. There was one expat couple whom I approached to ask where someone lived. They were inside their house - the man of the house was on the computer - but the door was wide open so I peeked in and asked my question. The result was that I felt like part of the island within a short time and enjoyed engaging in conversation with both locals and visitors.

I rented a car and recall a few interesting details. First, the gentleman who rented me the car picked me up at my hotel and took me to where I would pick up the car, but asked me to sit in the back because he had a passenger in the front - a lamb! After I picked up my car and started driving on the island's winding roads - necessary because of the extremely hilly terrain - I saw an abandoned car that had crashed into the side of one of the concrete barriers and concluded, correctly or incorrectly, that it was a visitor that had tried to drive too fast around the hairpin turns.

While in St. Martin waiting for my flight to Saba I had the chance to meet an 89-year-old woman from the sister island of St. Eustatius (Statia), who engaged me in conversation. I don't recall her name now, but when I was on Saba chatting with a 76-year-old banjo maker named Alwyn "Buck" Caines, who had moved there from Statia many years ago, I asked him if he knew her. He said yes and commented enthusiastically, "Could she dance!"

Though the island feels isolated, the people do keep up with what is going on, particularly through cable TV. One gentleman, learning that I was from Philadelphia, talked to me about how the Philadelphia Phillies were doing and how one of their star players was not playing to his potential.

One evening I went to a bar in The Bottom to see a group perform. They were Caribbean-style rappers who called themselves the Destruction Band. The bar crowd was very small and I felt sorry for the rappers, who would have felt more at home in a larger venue. These places are usually for the locals and will generally not draw a crowd anyway. When I left the bar, I was approached by a young man who asked me to give him a ride to the town of St. John's. Normally he would have had to walk the entire way back to his house unless someone happened to be driving in his direction. On an island like Saba, there is no fear of giving someone a ride even if you don't know them.

The two days went by very quickly and the next stop on my Caribbean tour was the nearby island of Statia. When I finished with the rental car, I could just park it at Saba's small airport and leave the key in the ashtray, as there was no fear that anyone would steal it. I had meant to give a CD to Glenn Holm, Saba's director of tourism, but had forgotten to do so, so when I got ready to leave I just left it with a gentleman at the airport and asked him to get it to Glenn. The takeoff from the small airport was smooth and actually the landing at Statia was rougher than at Saba because of some strong crosswinds that seemed determined to push the small aircraft off course.

Probably the most interesting observation that I took from my trip to Saba is that Sabans are hard-working people but laid back at the same time. These seem like contradictions but they don't have to be. We in the northeastern part of the US seem to associate hard work with nervousness, packing too much into our schedule, rushing meals and running around, and can learn a valuable lesson from the Sabans regarding how to pace ourselves.

Check out my Twitter account @meesposito and my Facebook page "Mike Esposito's Travel Blog" for more travel-related information.

Montego Bay and the NAJASO Convention - July 18-21, 2013

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller addresses the NAJASO Convention


Diana and I returned to Montego Bay on July 18 from Kingston in the afternoon and arrived 30 minutes late at the Secrets Montego Bay for the NAJASO conference welcome. The mayor of Montego Bay, the Director of Tourism, the Governor General of Jamaica, the president of NAJASO and others gave speeches. Afterwards was a cocktail reception and music by The Mighty Beestons, this time with bass and drum set added. Diana dropped me off at Sandals Carlyle at about 10:30. My room number was 303. Showered, tried to sleep but was too hungry, so went down to the bar/restaurant area for a late snack of chicken fajita wrap. Room 303 has a balcony with a nice view of the Hip Strip (toward the south) and the small beach to the right.


July 19: The breakfast buffet at Secrets had varieties of cheeses, also had a ham and cheese omelet, along with a banana smoothie and coffee, and lots of water. Waitress was nice and called to me when I forgot my suit jacket. 

There was some delay in starting the seminar, but the AM focus was on education. There was some networking time afterwards. At lunch the keynote speaker was the leader of opposition and former Prime Minister.


Arriving at Secrets Montego Bay

Ate escovitched snapper at lunch buffet at Secrets, accompanied by sweet potatoes, salad and rice with peas. Dessert was chocolate mousse and key lime cheese cake with caramelized pineapple. Had lots of Ting soda, rum punch and coffee.


The afternoon was dedicated to tourism. Diana led the panel discussion with the ex-Tourism Minister, Theo Chambers and the rep from the Jamaica Tourist Board. Diana asked me to provide a short testimonial, and I said that my experience far surpassed any other tourism and culture experience that I had. 


Diana McIntyre-Pike poses with Rick Nugent (left) and Dr. Alston Meade

After the end, we stepped outside for photos, and I didn't stay for the panel discussion on Six Sigma because Diana had to leave early. I got back to Sandals Carlyle, showered and went down to the Jacuzzi.

Later I went to the dining area for dinner. One of the waiters told me that there was a dress code and that I needed to wear a shirt with a collar. I obliged and returned. I had two pieces of what tasted like raisin bread and ordered spring rolls for appetizers, followed up by an entree of snapper with rice and vegetables. Dessert was a flambé. Afterwards, I went back to poolside and let myself nap to soft music from the iPod.

Housekeeping had my laundry ready at about 10:20 PM - a pleasant surprise.


Streamer tail hummingbird in the garden at Sandals Carlyle
July 20: Had our 8:30 AM mtg with Christopher Elliott, Diana and Khadine Daley at Sandals Carlyle. Christopher is the General Manager of the resort and Khadine was in charge of media relations.) Lots of good discussion, and we learned that Sandals is also connected with community outreach. Diana and I went to Secrets, we caught the tail end of the young professionals meeting and part of the medical professionals meeting. I met the former honorary consul of Jamaica in Philadelphia, Dr. Alston Meade and had a nice conversation with him regarding how he got his start in the city.  Lunch was buffet style at Secrets with Diana, Theo Chambers and Melida Harris-Barrow of Panama. 

In the afternoon I went back to Sandals Carlyle and rested by getting a beef patty for a snack, lying in a hammock, taking pictures of a hummingbird, resting in the hot tub, lying on a float in the pool, and swimming. Later I showered and got ready for the banquet. The Prime Minister of Jamaica was in attendance. There was lots of dancing in that nice, easy reggae style and we didn't get back to my hotel until 12:30 AM.

July 21: Breakfast at Sandals Carlyle: gave most of photos and videos to Diana (she doesn't have those from camcorder or iPhone). During breakfast she was copying them from my two memory cards to her laptop. We also had a good conversation but I was preoccupied with the time and don't recall it, except that she was also going to copy all the photos for Sandals Carlyle to use, and perhaps some discussion of her upcoming trip to St. Kitts to set up the community tourism network with those islands. She took me to Sandals Royal Caribbean for the tour with Rochelle. There was little time but I was able to see the spa and other parts that Adriana and I may have overlooked last year. I recall mentioning to Rochelle my experiences in Treasure Beach, particularly Jakes and the unique room I stayed in. I hopped on the shuttle and Rochelle continued the tour at Sandals Montego Bay, including the chapel sometimes used for weddings and the restaurants. Sandals let me use a room to change, complete with whirlpool bath -very nice! I had lunch (pizza), a pina colada at the bar and a little beach time before heading to the airport. 

I had dropped a memory card in Diana's car, but fortunately it was an empty one that I had bought in Black River and didn't work in my camera anyway. I had also left my toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash in my room at Sandals Carlyle, thinking I was going to return to the room but then time ran out and I forgot that I left those items there on purpose to brush my teeth there and then pack them. My tie, which I kept misplacing at various intervals, had disappeared altogether when it was time for the reception at Secrets on July 20.

Checkin was smooth and I was able to pay for my checked bags in Jamaican dollars. I had to transfer items from one bag to another because the first bag was over the weight limit. I used a skycap for the bags and the tip is $1 per checked bag (displayed on sign).

Check out my Twitter account @meesposito and my Facebook page "Mike Esposito's Travel Blog" for more travel-related information.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jamaica: Kingston, Portland, the Blue Mountains, and back to Montego Bay

Lunch with Jacqueline DaCosta at the Spanish Court Hotel in Kingston. Jackie helped create the Best Village Competition in Jamaica

Part of a series on a two-week trip to Jamaica in July 2013

7/16: Diana McIntyre-Pike and I traveled from Mandeville to Kingston with Diana driving the rental car. I took part of the time asking Diana questions about Countrystyle Community Tourism Network, her non-governmental organization (NGO) and then fell asleep for about 30 minutes because I hadn't slept well the night before. We had lunch at the Spanish Court Hotel, both of us meeting with Jacqueline DaCosta, who ran the Best Village competition that she and Diana helped establish to reward communities that worked to improve the quality of life of their residents via economic initiatives, conservation and other measures. Diana, of course, was instrumental in arranging this meeting. We later met two people from the hotel staff, one of which gave me a tour of the hotel, which is attractive and geared toward business travelers, before Diana drove us to Buff Bay to stop at her boyfriend's parents, the Bonitto family, who have been married since 1961. At the house I had juice and coffee with fruit before we set out for Charles Town, home of one Maroon community. (Maroons are the descendants of islanders who resisted slavery and established their own free communities.) It was dark when we arrived. 

On the way to Kingston, Diana said that in spite of Spanish Town's Spanish colonial buildings, she doesn't take people there because it is unsafe - a real shame because the history of Jamaica before the English occupation deserves recognition.

It may have been at the Bonitto's house or at lunch that Diana explained that she worked at the Holiday Inn in Montego Bay in the early 70s, didn't like the hotel's non-native food selection and had a run-in with her manager over the hotel's policies of discouraging guests from leaving the property to eat. After studying in Germany, she returned and established her community tourism program shortly after that (in 1978).

The Maroon family in Charles Town that hosted me: Oliver, his wife Annette in the center, and two of their children. Tish, the young woman on the right, is a visitor from Oakland
At Charles Town, I spoke with Frank Lumsden, the Maroon Colonel, and then went to the house of a Maroon woman named Annette who had the guest room in her house prepared. She served a dinner with chicken and potatoes, white rice and salad. The kids were watching a video. A young woman visiting from Oakland named Tish, still in college, ate with me and explained that she had visited there on a student program, got along very well with the family and returned. In fact it was the first real experience with family that she had, given her upbringing in difficult circumstances in Oakland. After dinner I spoke with the Maroon woman about the community and the Maroon conference that was held in Charles Town in June 2013. 

I asked Annette about the similarities and differences between Maroons and Rastas, and she replied that you can be a Maroon and a Rasta at the same time. (Being Maroon, of course, is dependent on your lineage.) There was a family in the community with the last name of Douglas who fit that description.

The room was the most rustic of the places I stayed during my visit to Jamaica. A curtain hangs in place of a door between the living room and the bedroom. It did have its own bathroom, also rustic, although in that case there was a door. The woman set up a fan but she had to stretch the extension cord for it to reach as the room itself, while it has a light, doesn't have any outlets. This is one place where you can appreciate how many Jamaicans live - very basic, but what they have they give freely. Not every visitor is suited for this type of experience, but if you want to understand people as they live and not just tend to your own comfort, this is the way to do it. In my view the rewards are substantial.
The Maroon community center in Charles Town preserves the heritage of the Maroons, descendants of islanders who resisted slavery

7/17: I was up early for breakfast at the homestay. Annette served ackee with saltfish, fried green plantain, and cooked green banana with coffee. 

We packed up quickly and went to see Frank Lumsden at the Maroon center. There was no set agenda, simply a tour of the museum and grounds, watching people do a demo of drumming (they do not do kumina or nyabingi drumming, but a style called Kromanti drumming) and learning about some of the frustrations of half-completed government projects. There was ample opportunity for discussion during the visit on topics such as the origin of jerk pork and jerk chicken among the Maroons, the efforts to identify people claiming to be Maroon through their genealogy, and key events in Maroon history. I knew that an American researcher named Kenneth Bilby had spent considerable time with the Maroons, and asked Frank how long it took Ken to earn their trust initially. Frank said "four years" but since that time Ken has returned to the community, most recently at the Maroon convention in June. At the end, while sitting in Frank's office, I had time to play some music from Colombia for Frank and show two videos to the schoolteacher. She wanted her kids to see the Latin video, so I paused it and the kids, the teacher and Frank were thrilled by it. I later purchased another copy of the video and sent it to him. Frank made a point that exposure to this information was precisely what his community needed. That experience was probably the best moment of the entire Jamaica trip for me.

Diana and I stopped at the Bonitto house and then went toward Boston Bay for jerk chicken for lunch. This could be called a touristy attraction due to the in your face attitude of the vendors, though the food was good. We both bought costume jewelry from vendors there.

The coastline was very pretty, and we also managed to stop at the Mockingbird Hill Hotel to talk to Shireen Aga, one of its owners. The grounds are gorgeous and the discussion, although short, was lively. The hotel's restaurant, Mille Fleurs, has a great reputation. Nonetheless, it is a challenge to get visitors to consider staying in that area because of the focus on other parts of the island for tourism.

Flowers abound at the Mockingbird Hill Hotel

I caught another nap on the way to Kingston, but woke up in time to get a quick view of Castleton Gardens from the road. Lush tropical trees from the gardens were impossible to miss.

We stopped at Jackie DaCosta's house in an affluent part of Kingston to wash and change for the CVM TV show Live at 7. (While in Montego Bay at the beginning of my Jamaica trip, I had learned via a phone call that I would be appearing on the show as a guest to talk about my experience with community tourism in Jamaica.) The host of Live at 7, Simon Croskill, was not favorably disposed toward Diana's idea of community tourism and did not hide his skepticism toward the concept, but on the panel we had Carolyn Hayle from The University of the West Indies and myself to defend it, and Damion Crawford of the Ministry of Tourism to espouse the opposing point of view in his support of a more traditional model of resort tourism which, at the risk of oversimplification, could be referred to as "heads and beds." From my perspective I considered the exchange a draw. 

Afterwards it was back to Jackie's house to meet Jackie's husband and have a delicious dinner with stewed beef, shrimp and rice with salad, and coconut ice cream for dessert. Carolyn met us there as well for dinner. There was much more discussion on many topics including international politics, and I wound up checking in at the Indies Hotel, a nice small hotel in Kingston, at 11 PM.

The courtyard at the Indies Hotel, a small hotel in Kingston

7/18: I had breakfast with Diana at the Indies Hotel, and then we proceeded to Jennifer Lyn's house to pick her up and go to her small hotel, Forres Park, in the Blue Mountains region. We toured both the grounds in the surrounding hills and the rooms in the hotel; it was a clear day so that Blue Mountain Peak, the highest mountain in Jamaica, could be clearly seen. Forres Park has a conference and game room with a view of the mountain right behind. 



One of many ways to relax at Forres Park, in the Blue Mountains region

While at Forres Park we met a couple from Quebec who agreed to represent Diana's organization in Canada. I had a refreshing juice with ginger, and later tried to photograph hummingbirds with the quick shutter speed, though I still had things to learn about taking those types of pictures. We later took the winding mountain road back down to Kingston to drop off Jennifer at her house. We stopped at Diana's brother Raymond's architectural firm to meet him and his business partner and pick up boxes of brochures for the NAJASO convention. We made our way to Heroes Circle so that I could take a picture of the Simon Bolivar statue, which was a gift to Jamaica from the Venezuelan government. I wanted to go to the corner where Simon Bolivar stayed while he lived in exile in Kingston in 1815 (Princess and Tower Streets) and wrote his famous "Letter from Jamaica" detailing his plans to liberate South America from Spanish colonial rule. The area in many ways does not reveal its history and is now a dangerous neighborhood with the streets full of potholes. The house where Bolivar stayed is long gone but there are other old English colonial and colonial style buildings nearby, which, if they were restored, could be converted into a tourist attraction. My impression, just based on my interactions with people during the trip and what I could see of the focus of tourism efforts, is that Jamaica is still conflicted about showcasing its colonial past - the wounds are still fresh after only 51 years of independence - and does not handle this type of historic preservation consistently across the island. Jennifer Lyn had left her books in the car so we swung by her house to drop them off before leaving Kingston shortly before 2 PM.

The Mighty Beestons Mento Band at the NAJASO convention in Montego Bay

We were behind and needed to make up time on the toll road to get to Montego Bay in time for the NAJASO convention opening. (This convention is made up of Jamaicans living abroad who discuss ways to assist the island in various capacities, including medicine.) We stopped for gas in the vicinity of May Pen, and at a drive-through restaurant to order patties and coco bread - a delightful Jamaican combination - for lunch in Clarendon Parish. We stopped in Mandeville and took pictures with Junior, a gentleman who helps Diana with transportation for the community tours. We proceeded to the Mandeville Hotel to shower and change (for me, Room 400, which is a suite that will be remodeled). Diana's sister-in-law runs the hotel. We were quickly back on the road, going to Middle Quarters and then driving to Montego Bay via New Market. We arrived 30 minutes late at Secrets Montego Bay for the NAJASO conference welcome, but still managed to socialize and catch the performance of "The Mighty Beestons" mento band. The band played tunes that delighted the attendees at the convention, inspiring people to dance. In my next and final installment, I will describe the NAJASO conference and how it served to provide a fitting end to my two-week Jamaica visit.

Check out my Twitter account @meesposito and my Facebook page "Mike Esposito's Travel Blog" for more travel-related information.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jamaica trip (continued): Black River, Treasure Beach, and Mandeville


Crocodile in Black River


For this post I decided not to stray too much from my diary entries.

7/13/13: An even more intense day than 7/12. I took photos on the beach and sat down with Astil Gage of Beeston Spring, Westmoreland for breakfast. Barbara Powell, owner of the Paradise Ocean View Hotel (with her husband), accompanied us to Black River to show us inside the Anglican Church and to view other buildings such as the US medical school and even the emergency room of the local hospital! Our next stop was the Black River Safari and the crocodiles. Two of them fought briefly but it was too fast for the camera. At the top of the river there was a woman's store where I bought a Red Stripe beer and a bridge where people dive into the river to swim. We met a group from Brussels and I had a brief opportunity to practice some Dutch. We dropped off Barbara at her hotel and went into town to buy coco bread and a memory card for my camcorder (which didn't work with the camcorder).

Lunch was curried shrimp at Middle Quarters. 

We went to YS (pronounced "wise") Falls and spoke with the director, Simon Browne, and hopped aboard the shuttle (pulled by a tractor), to the falls and pools. We had a limited amount of time there but enough to enjoy the surroundings. In spite of the number of people there, it still gives off an air of relaxation even as you marvel at the falls.

Only one of many views available at YS Falls

We drove to Treasure Beach and then I dropped off Astil at the gas station to pick up a taxi, then I drove back to Treasure Beach and gave rides to four people in total (one first, then three others) before arriving at the Treasure Beach Hotel. Melonie Wallace, the owner, joined me for dinner where I ate shrimp with mashed potatoes, and ice cream. I had Sauvignon Blanc, Ting and lots of water. The server, Grayon, was excellent and even spread my napkin on my lap. There were similar details when she went to pour water or serve food. 

When I checked into my room (47), I was delighted to see a heart-shaped towel on my bed with flowers. There were flowers in other parts of the room, including the bathroom and even the toilet paper roll! The room also has a small lounge area and features a four-poster bed made by a local craftsman who made all the beds for the hotel.

7/14: This day was mostly for relaxing, and the Treasure Beach Hotel provided a wonderful opportunity for that. Melonie Wallace, the owner, encouraged me to experience the place's atmosphere, and so I walked around the grounds and the nearby beach to allow myself to be swept away by its delightful ambience of lush tropical vegetation and stunning sea views. It was a fabulous antidote to a year of intense work on Consent Decree at McNeil. Speaking with Melonie at breakfast was equally delightful. I met an elderly couple at poolside, and the gentleman who called himself "Uncle Son" happened to be Diana's cousin, back in Jamaica after many years in England. I stayed in Room 47, on the second floor of one of several small buildings (4 rooms apiece) that covered the grounds. 

In the afternoon, I checked out and at Jack Sprat Restaurant met up with Dennis Abrahams, who conducts boat tours and is the driving force behind the community tourism endeavor at Treasure Beach. We had a great conversation and covered topics from politics to waste disposal to health care. The dinner of garlic conch with bammy and festival (a fritter) washed down with Ting soda was great. 

Later at about 6:00 it was to Jake's next door for checkin. As I was on my way to the front desk, I ran into Tracy Barry, owner of The Landing Hotel in Harbour Island, Bahamas. I knew her from email and Facebook but had never met her in person, so it was a wonderful coincidence - two of them in the same day!

I thought of an unrelated trip detail while writing this. It had to do with Number 11 mangoes, a common theme of Caribbean folk songs. Astil had some of these in the car with him. I don't remember where we got them.

Like Treasure Beach, Jake's is filled with details that delight the visitor. The cottages, with what I would call a funky version of Gaudiesque architecture, are designed so that you have a private, unobstructed view of the sea and its pounding waves. The decor suggests a romantic getaway. Your bed faces the sea directly and you can even choose to leave the doors open and hang mosquito netting while you sleep. Likewise, there are beds on the roof of the cottage that afford you the same opportunity. Your bathtub and shower are outside (the toilet and sink are inside in a separate room), and concealed from anyone else's view, and in my case, I bathed under the stars. I loved the terry cloth bathrobes that are made available for coming out of the bath area. The fridge is stocked with beverages which come included. I'm sure the owner knew that most guests absolutely hate the mini-bar system and all the ridiculous lengths that hotel chains go through to track your use of it. There was an iPod player which unfortunately worked only part of the time. The rooms have colorful names, and I stayed in "Octopus 3". There was an octopus in mosaic tiles on one of the walls of the outdoor bathing area.

The crescent moon made a nice reflection on the water. After the moon set, I was treated to an enviable view of the stars.

Capturing some stars after fussing with the settings on my camera


7/15: I rose very early, first at 2:30 and again at 4:00, and at 4 was determined to learn how to photograph stars because the sky was full of them. I fumbled in the dark with my camera and the iPhone searching online for the instructions because the camera's instructions were very limited. I had to learn about shutter speed, aperture and focal length and see how I could control these on the Sony CyberShot. I made various attempts over about 45 minutes until I succeeded learning how to set a 30 second shutter speed on the camera. I took two pictures just in time because the first rays of light appeared at about 5:00 and the stars slowly began to disappear. I can't overstate my delight at entering this new realm of my photography skills. I played around with shots of the sunrise until it was bright enough to revert to the automatic settings. Then I went between loading photos onto the laptop and taking new ones. I showered in the outdoor shower, this time under the morning sky, and got my things ready.

I had a cheese omelet for breakfast (I had had eggs at TBH the day before) and was introduced to Sally Herzell, the owner's mother and the designer of the unique cottages at Jake's. It was a great conversation but we had to stop when it was time to make the rounds at Treasure Beach with Dennis Abrahams. We toured several properties, the Women's Benevolent Society, BREDS and the Sports Park. I went back to Jake's for a tour of the rooms and the spa, drove behind Dennis to Rebecca's house (she is an expat from Massachusetts who conducts tours), and went solo to Mandeville. I was slowed down when my left side mirror hit the open door of a taxi parked on the side of the road (the mirror was smashed but the frame was intact), but proceeded to Mandeville and after a few wrong turns found the Mandeville Hotel. I had an afternoon snack with Diana, her sister-in-law who runs the hotel, and another gentleman connected with Countrystyle. We stopped at a craft shop stocked with items made in Jamaica, spoke with a leather belt maker and a drummer who played a drum he had made (he even planted the tree used to make the drum), and went on to rendezvous with people involved with Countrystyle before proceeding to Valerie Dixon's house for the Homestay. Over dinner we had a lively discussion about how to proceed with Countrystyle and the group wanted to know what led me to be interested. I replied that Diana's initiative was unique in that not only did it affirm the folk culture but also put it squarely in the hands of the people, and that this was the only instance I knew of it being implemented across an entire nation. I had some mint tea and dessert and continued my discussion with Valerie and her husband until late after the others had left.

Heliconias in Valerie Dixon's garden, near Mandeville

7/16: I woke early and accompanied Valerie Dixon to her garden, where she showed me what she was growing and what her gardener was harvesting, and noted that last night's pumpkin soup was from a pumpkin pulled fresh from the garden. Likewise, the goat meat at dinner was from one of the goats that pastured in her field. She just didn't like being there when they were slaughtered. 

Breakfast consisted of ackee and saltfish, white and yellow yams, and breadfruit accompanied with chocolate. I showed Valerie a video from a Latin music and dance performance that I had organized in Philadelphia in 2002 and she asked me to make me a copy. 

Diana first took me to the Blue Mountain coffee factory in Mandeville, and I got a tour of the facility. Later we went to Kingston; I took part of the time asking Diana questions about her NGO and then fell asleep for about 30 minutes because I hadn't slept well the night before.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Traveling through western Jamaica: starting at Montego Bay, stopping at Negril, and proceeding to Black River

An old sugar mill in the countryside west of Montego Bay

After two nights in Montego Bay, I packed up to head for the remaining stops in my Jamaica stay, and Arlene McKenzie, my host at the homestay there, was to drive my rental car heading west and get me to Negril. Along the way, she wanted to show me a sugar mill in the countryside, as well as the undeveloped Fort Charlotte site near the town of Lucea. It is government property and sits on a wonderful location on one end of a bay and has great potential to be an historic place, but has not been restored to receive tourists. There were some odd containers there with the name of a chemical company that look like they were left as rubbish.

Arlene McKenzie observing a cannon at Fort Charlotte, near Lucea
There were plenty of other opportunities to stop to take pictures of the surroundings, and as one of my objectives was to assess the state of the tourist infrastructure, I noted road signs that could be useful for the visitor, such as one sign we saw when we arrived in Negril, sponsored by the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation. The foundation is what could be called the philanthropic arm of the recent surge in investment from Spain in Jamaica's tourism infrastructure. The Spanish presence in Jamaica is not without controversy but from my vantage point, I could only listen to the information I was given as I didn't know anyone who represented their properties.

Sign along the Jamaica Heritage Trail, sponsored by the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation
We checked into the Foote Prints Hotel, a small boutique hotel in Negril. Diana McIntyre-Pike, who had organized my itinerary but was traveling in the British Virgin Islands, had made calls to arrange for a complimentary stay for me at the hotel. The owner, Ingrid Foote Daye, met Arlene and me for lunch, and we took advantage of the opportunity to ask her about her establishment. Ingrid said that her main challenge was keeping up with her utility bills. She had solar panels installed but the utility bill did not go down even after that. She maintains an average 70% room occupancy rate and counts on repeat business. She also gets bookings for weddings and graduations. Many of her clients are Jamaicans. Most of her bookings come through Expedia.com and other online booking sites, but GoGo Worldwide Vacations removed her from their list in favor of the Riu Spanish hotel chain, which tends to build mega resorts like the ones in Punta Cana, and her hotel has a far smaller number of rooms. It is also hard for her to compete with the prices of these all-inclusive mega resorts (her hotel includes breakfast).
Ingrid Foote Daye, owner of the Foote Prints Hotel
While we were eating, we saw a mento folk band walking on the beach with their instruments and we asked them to play. They were based in Negril and called the Sunshine Mento Band. I bought one of their CDs. Arlene added that one of the dances of Negril was called Etu.

The next stop was the Rayon Hotel to deliver a presentation on Latin music. I did not present it all due to time constraints but it was well received and sparked a lively discussion about the need for cultural preservation. The group seemed particularly intrigued about the Native American Pueblos in New Mexico and the way that Mexico promotes its cultural heritage. Arlene wants to introduce me to contacts in Kingston that specialize in the country's traditional music, where she feels that my Power Point presentation would get even better exposure.

Later we went to the Time Square Shopping Mall to visit the stores and see the office of Let's Do It in the Caribbean, a website developer focusing on tourism done positively. I was impressed with how Theo Chambers and Sharon Parris-Chambers, the husband-and-wife owners, mentored the young women on their staff. Theo said that often it is friends and family who tell you that you shouldn't pursue your dreams. The reception from the staff there was wonderful.

Enviable view from my table at the Foote Prints Hotel

Arlene and I were tired after that, so we went back to the Foote Prints Hotel and swam in the bay for a half hour before Arlene left me at Grand Pineapple for dinner courtesy of Alexander Pike, Diana McIntyre-Pike's son and the site's Operations Manager. Arlene visited with some friends and later came back for me. I took her to the bus stop in Negril to pick up a van (like a "colectivo") to Lucea, then I drove the rental car back to the Foote Prints Hotel, the first time I ever drove on the left, and with a car with the steering wheel on the right!

The next morning I took some photos from the balcony, which offered a partial view of the bay.  I swam a little and walked north only a few steps before being offered ganja from Colombia. I knew of Negril's reputation but was still surprised how early and quickly the ganja vendors were at work. I told the man that my wife is Colombian and hates that her country is associated with drugs, and for that reason I would never buy them. Then I turned around and walked south as far as Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, and was offered cigarettes, ganja and Cuban cigars from another man. I told him I didn't smoke. 

I had breakfast at the hotel restaurant facing the beach, and was offered ganja from a passerby. The waiter gave me advice on how to say no: say "I'm good" twice, don't respond after that, and let them talk to themselves. My conclusion was that the ganja vendors were mildly persistent, but certainly not aggressive, and hardly detracted at all from my positive experience in Negril.

For breakfast I ate ackee, saltfish, dumplings, calaloo and a gray starch called dasheen, after which I got a 1/2 hr massage on the beach from Marlene. At Foote Prints, I met Mike the groundskeeper and Percy, one of the drivers.
Cosmo at his beach bar in Negril
Astil Gage, who heads the community development committee for his home town of Beeston Spring, stopped by the hotel. He would accompany me from Negril to the Treasure Beach region. I took him to Grand Pineapple and then went to Cosmo's Beach Bar next to Beaches Negril for a wonderful lunch of grilled lobster and conch soup with a piña colada. Cosmo, the owner, had lots of stories to tell. He was born in Negril and recalls when the road didn't exist and they had to walk along the beach to get to school. The beach was lined with coconuts at that time. They got water digging around the coconut palms and use lime to purify the water. 

He went to Chicago in 1966 to manage a restaurant and had a dream to go back to Negril to open his own place. The goal was to make it clean but rustic with lots of good food. His spot is along the widest stretch of sand in Negril, along Long Bay. He has changing rooms and picnic tables, and says that he invites people to see his kitchen because he has nothing to hide, and that he is careful where he eats being aware of what secrets some kitchens have (e.g. spoiled food). He has fed celebrities such as Lionel Richie, Teddy Pendergrass, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Lennox Lewis, Celine Dion, and all the Prime Ministers of Jamaica since he opened in 1976, to name a few.

After leaving Cosmo's, it was back to Grand Pineapple to pick up Astil and head towards Whitehouse and Beeston Spring. I made a wrong turn into Savanna-La-Mar but it gave us an opportunity to see the ruins of another fort. Astil saw Wolde Kristos, the gentleman who would later meet with me to discuss preservation efforts for Bluefields Bay, along the road and asked me to stop so we could chat briefly. An American girl named Heidi Savery was with them, and I learned that she had received a Fulbright scholarship like myself (but in her case it was to Jamaica) and was now a doctoral candidate in anthropology. She was born near Boston but decided that she wanted to be in Jamaica.
A peacock strutting its stuff at Sandals Whitehouse
We arrived at Sandals Whitehouse and Jervene Simpson, the site's Public Relations Manager, was there to greet us and take us on a tour of the facility. I learned about the resort's convention and banquet capacity, the various types of restaurants and accommodations, and the spas and fitness areas, and stores. One cannot help but be impressed by the attractiveness of the surroundings and the attention to detail.

We fought rain to get to the homestay in Beeston Spring, up the hill from Sandals Whitehouse. Beeston Spring is an example of what a town can do to better itself, and as evidence won Jamaica's National Best Community Competition in 2010. Astil and I took the winding roads to several locations to take in views and see various houses (including his own) and other buildings, such as a store where young people were engaged in a lively game of dominoes. We stopped at Rena Lawrence's bar/restaurant where my wife and I had seen a local mento band in 2012, and then to a new restaurant called Mix Tea, owned by Khalisa Callum (though her friends have nicknamed her "Green Tea"). This is a delightful place not to be missed. Khalisa is an exceptional hostess and adds countless touches to make eating there a memorable experience. I had pineapple chicken washed down with Ting soda, and Astil had a fish dish. Afterwards I took Astil home and took a wrong turn in the dark going back to the homestay. The wrong turn, however, satisfied my curiosity in seeing that the road ended at the very top of a hill where there was a radio tower, and a house perched right next to it!

Beekeeping is a means for the Beeston Spring community to earn income

The next day was quite intense with the itinerary. A wasp got into the room where I was sleeping, and I kept a light on and decided to write in the meantime. A few hours later Michael Brown, the owner, saw me as I opened the door, got the wasp out and then took me around his garden. It sounded like an impromptu interview so I turned on my camcorder. He was enthusiastic and it showed. He said that his profession was law but his passion was the garden. His father stopped by and continued the tour with other plants.

Michael's wife Lisa made me an ackee and saltfish breakfast with a whole wheat dumpling. I left at 8 AM to get to Astil Gage's house, then go with him to see the tour of the beekeeping business and listen to the local mento band play (they set up in the same place where the bees were). Before that we stopped at the house where Peace Corps volunteer Adriana was staying. My wife and I had met her last year when we did our short tour with Diana.
The Bluefields Bay patrol boat towed in a fisherman whose outboard motor stopped working

We then went down to Bluefields Bay to meet up with Wolde Kristos and learn about his organization, Bluefields Bay Fishermen's Friendly Society, which was founded in 1988. We had a great discussion about planning and fundraising for nonprofit organizations. Then it was time to go out on the patrol boat and see the bay - a great experience for Astil and myself.

We stopped at the Peter Tosh Mausoleum to tour the grounds and meet his mother, who is 95 years old. Then it was off to lunch, which was a delicious crab dish with rice and peas. We stopped to get coconut water and proceeded on to Black River and the Paradise Ocean View hotel, on a stretch of delightfully undeveloped beach. I took a walk on the beach, had some Schweppes Grapefruit soda and then napped. Astil and I later sat with Ken the owner and a friend named Steve who was visiting Black River. Dinner was curried goat with salad, rice and peas, accompanied by some great conversation.

Check out my Twitter account @meesposito and my Facebook page "Santa Fe Travel" for more travel-related information.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Attractions in Montego Bay, Jamaica (more than you think!)

Arlene McKenzie welcoming visitors to the Rastafari Community Village near Montego Bay
I was in Montego Bay at the beginning and at the end of my Jamaica trip in July 2013. I knew that there was much more to see in that area than I would be able to visit, but I decided to make the most of my time there. My first visit was for two days before heading out to the remainder of Jamaica.

On July 8, a gentleman named Ian picked me up from the airport in the rental car that I would be using for my entire two-week trip, and brought me to the Pelican Grill on The Hip Strip, where had a late breakfast with Arlene McKenzie, who coordinates tours to the nearby Rastafari Indigenous Village and at whose house I would stay for two nights. (She lives there with a gentleman, also a member of the village, whose name is Firstman.) While at the restaurant she took advantage of the opportunity to introduce me to Johnny Gourzong, who is the Executive Director of the popular Reggae Sumfest. He was very approachable and shared stories of the challenges of organizing a festival on such a grand scale year after year.

For the Rasta visit I tried not to overdo the photos and allowed myself to experience things. We happened to visit with a bank representative whose company had nominated the Rastafari village for an award. It must have been disconcerting for a person who was impeccably dressed in the manner of many Jamaicans to enter the village by having to take her shoes off and walk barefoot through a stream before walking along a dirt path. Accompanying us as well was a group of Japanese visitors who obviously were enjoying the entire experience.

Trying my hand at drumming; the gentleman at the right is named Firstman

The Rasta village tour started with us sitting in a canopied area where the first order of business was to have our hands washed from water from a calabash container. We also drank coconut water from a similar container and listened as the Rastas played nyabingi drumming in the distance. Some of the highlights of the tour were listening to an explanation of the "ital" diet that many Rastas practice, which feature vegetables and minimize sodium intake. Other highlights of the tour featured a tour of an herbal garden as well as an explanation of the herbs and their various properties, though we were never exposed to any descriptions of ganja (also known as "the holy herb"). The Rastas also have a garden that they encourage visitors to walk through barefoot, with a tree trunk in the center where one can sit and meditate. 

The tour wrapped up with sitting in the center area, resembling a large gazebo, where the words of Ras Tafari or Haile Selassie were posted, to watch the Rasta drummers, while we ate a delicious fruit salad. Afterwards we were handed some percussion instruments to play along, and the message of "one love" really resonated throughout the whole tour.

After the Rasta tour, it was back to Arlene's house to shower, relax (we did walk to a neighbor's house to take pictures of orchids) and then go to get jerk chicken at a place appropriately called Jerky's. Back at the house we did some debriefing of the day's activities and discussed plans for the future.

Arlene greets countless people wherever she goes, such as a Lutheran group from Brainerd, Minnesota whom she ran into while in the supermarket, neighbors and other friends and acquaintances.

Arlene has a delightful speaking voice, influenced by her education in England, and is a wonderful person for bouncing off ideas, having a wealth of information herself. I took advantage of the opportunity to share information with her, such as a book I had brought with me called Caribbean Blossoms, which she used as a reference when she tutored her neighbor's daughter Adrianna. I also shared songs that I had stored on my laptop, such as the Jamaican fife music that is a fading tradition, which led us to a discussion about what should be preserved and what should be allowed to die a natural death. Our discussion revolved around folk traditions and the inevitable pressures of modern society. So what are the criteria for something being "selected out" and what has been made extinct by destruction of habitat? We had no firm answers but the discussion was delightfully thought-provoking.

Tamika Williams showing lovely flowers at her "ahhh...Ras Natango Art Gallery and Garden"

The next day (July 9), the "ahhh...Ras Natango Art Gallery and Garden" was my main stop. Another person named Ian, this time Ian Williams, co-owner of the garden with his wife Tamika, picked me up at a shopping center and took me in a colorfully decorated van to their location, which is on the side of a hill and commands wonderful views.

The garden is a place to forget about life's worries and see how nature, combined with human ingenuity, can create a place soothing to body and soul. The rocks in different locations in the garden suggested various shapes, which Ian and company converted into works of art. They family even created a space designed for relaxation with hammocks, where I managed to catch a nap. 
A rock shape in the garden that suggested a Pharaoh

Our discussions about the garden, Rastafarianism and how to get oneself noticed as a tourist attraction were the main topics.  Ian told me first that he didn't follow the ital diet as strictly as other Rastas because he felt that the sodium levels were too low. He also pointed out that the outline of the lights that you see at night on the hill in the distance form the map of Jamaica.

When I returned to Arlene's house, I saw that she had welcomed Agnes, a French-born resident of British Columbia, Canada, to her homestay. I enjoyed speaking with Agnes and showed her the neighbor's garden that boasted beautiful orchids.

Here I'm swimming in the bioluminescent waters of Luminous Lagoon

After I had a refreshing shower and spent some time relaxing on the balcony of Arlene's house, we left with Arlene's Aunt Peggy to the Glistening Waters restaurant near Falmouth and go out on a boat in complete darkness to see the Luminous Lagoon and its bluish bioluminescent waters. (A full moon, while normally beautiful, is not the optimal situation because it obscures this effect.) The guide told us that there are only four bioluminescent bays in the world: two in Puerto Rico, one in Indonesia, and this bay in Jamaica. It was shallow, so a few of us were able to take a swim and activate the bioluminescence with our splashing (in our party, Agnes and myself). When I stepped out, my body lit up with lots of tiny white lights. 

In this case, it was worth it to pay someone to take pictures of the bioluminescent effect, because it requires a specific camera setting to capture this lighting in the best way. 

After leaving, we stopped at a roadside restaurant that specialized in fish. I had jack fish with bammy (a bread made from cassava); delicious! We weren't home till about midnight. When I stepped in the bathroom, I noticed that my toenails still had some of the blue sand on them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Role of the Countrystyle Community Tourism Network and Villages as Businesses in Jamaica

Diana McIntyre-Pike, Founder and President of the Countrystyle Community Tourism Network

Diana McIntyre-Pike realized, as she was building her model of community tourism in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, that there was a need for an organization to serve as a liaison between the visitor and the community, hence Countrystyle Community Tourism Network (CCTN) was born as a nongovernmental organization bringing together the various groups that participate in the tours. This group is designed as a membership organization. Likewise, Diana created a for-profit corporation called Villages as Businesses (VAB) to manage the contracts with the groups, a part of the project still in development. 


What Diana wants readers to know is that the combined efforts of CCTN and VAB will create what she calls "an efficient destination management organization to design the community experience tours." She adds that this organization will distinguish itself by "bearing in mind the clients' interests and budget and also making changes as required by the clients. CCTN with VAB will be providing business development support, marketing support and training support at discounted rates [to the communities] since they are members of CCTN.The network integrates the activities of the tour operators and attractions with the logistics piece. Other roles that the combined organizations will fulfill will be "responding to any emergencies and special requests...and dealing with any problems that may occur in a community." 



Any business that wants to grow has to become increasingly specialized in certain areas. For example, a business may hire individuals to handle sales and the ongoing relationship with clients. The workers in the "back room" are focused on creating the product and shipping it, and don't have the time to handle client relationships and drive sales at the same time. Likewise, CCTN and VAB fulfill this go-between function, and have an enormous amount of credibility with the villages, accommodations and tour operators that form part of the network.

CCTN/VAB also play a vital role as advocate for the community, which cannot be overemphasized. Diana notes that CCTN/VAB act as a "'go between' with organizations like Sandals Resorts, Island Routes, and other local and international tour companies and travel agents." Yet this role, while being vital for keeping the whole operation functioning, is the area that tends to be overlooked because it is so seamless and invisible to the client as well as to internal stakeholders such as foundations or government agencies. One essential component of advocacy which I have experienced firsthand, is CCTN and VAB "sticking their foot in the door." Communities often encounter considerable obstacles when dealing with government agencies or funders, due to the uneven power relationship which favors those who control the allocation of resources. Diana and her collaborators have fought hard to gain a fair hearing for sustainable tourism projects, but always insist that those who would oppose unsustainable programs not just criticize but also offer viable alternatives. This is where the truly hard work of advocacy comes in. 

When it comes to politics and especially dividing up the spoils of politics - wealth, influence and hegemony, those who would seek to retain these for themselves and their associates have to create some type of noise to destroy the credibility of a legitimate alternative. If this activity is allowed to be unchecked, politics, economy and the social fabric acquire a dysfunctional nature. The best approach to counter this tendency is to stick to logic, hard evidence and the legitimate rule of law to gain public support for valid ideas, which are more difficult to ignore once their worth has been proven and the public base becomes convinced of the resultant benefits to society. For me, it is exciting to witness the growth of this grass roots initiative to develop a sustainable economic model and channel the enormous power of a well-designed tourism product to go beyond providing leisure and truly create good will between people.