Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Countrystyle Community Tourism experience in Jamaica

Shops in Mandeville

My wife Adriana and I went to Jamaica for a short visit from June 30 to July 4. Our visit had two phases: the first was our stay at the Sandals Carlyle in Montego Bay, and the second was a two-day tour in Jamaica's interior courtesy of Countrystyle Community Tourism. There were so many experiences wrapped up in such a short time that words fail to describe it adequately. It was evident to me that I would need some time to digest it.

This article will concentrate on our experience with Countrystyle. Diana McIntyre-Pike, who lives in Mandeville, the largest city in Manchester Parish (Jamaica´s administrative regions are called parishes), has spent more than 30 years of her life managing hotels and tours, was our host for the two-day tour. This customized tour was the result of quite a bit of preparation and communication over a two-month period, not to mention the fact that Diana and I first communicated via email in 2007 or so. Diana first welcomed us with a gift basket and also gave us some literature that highlighted the region´s attractions. The tour started from Montego Bay and followed the coast east to Falmouth, and then went toward the interior where the landscape changed frequently. First, after passing through some lowlands, we were confronted with the topography of the eastern end of the Cockpit Country, a hilly area that in some parts is still impenetrable. We passed through several towns on this eastern side such as Clark's Town, Clarence Town, and Albert Town. Diana found time to speak to a local herbalist who knew the medicinal properties of many of the area´s plants.


Albert Town is on the edge of the Cockpit Country in north central Jamaica.

Countrystyle Community Tourism director Diana McIntyre-Pike (left) with a local herbalist

After passing through this region, we noticed a few more changes in the surroundings. We first went to a lowland and back upwards toward Mandeville. The hills in this region featured some closed bauxite plants, a lot of new building of luxurious homes, and what looks to be a vibrant community. We stopped briefly at a plant that processed and packaged the famous Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. Continuing to the center of town, we had lunch in a popular locale that featured meat and chicken patties.

I invited a friend from Kingston, Cheryl Ryman, to take time out of her busy schedule and join Adriana and me in Mandeville. Diana was very accommodating and tailored the schedule so that we could fit in Cheryl in part of the trip. (Cheryl is the Executive Director of Outameni Experience, a popular attraction in northern Jamaica that provides an introduction to Jamaican culture for visitors.) After we met up with Cheryl we headed south toward a small village in the vicinity of Cross Keys, Manchester Parish, called Resource Village. The area has historical significance for a number of reasons, among them the Taino presence prior to colonization, and the activities of Marcus Garvey, whose vision prompted the construction of a United Negro Improvement Association "Liberty Hall," now in disrepair but with the hope of getting funds to make it serve the community again.

Diana's goal for this stop was for us to have for lunch the Jamaican national dish, ackee and saltfish. Ackee is a fruit, but looks and tastes (at least to me) like scrambled eggs in this combination. Having a local fruit called jackfruit, which looks like breadfruit but is delightfully sweet and sticky, finished off lunch nicely.

Ackee and saltfish with bammy or cassava bread

As lunch was winding down, we watched a local African-inspired dance. The young people who danced in a circle were fun to watch. I was invited to participate, which took me out of my comfort zone, but I made the best of it :) . Cheryl is in black, second from the right, and felt right at home dancing with the group.


Resource Village residents perform a local dance with Cheryl Ryman 


Then it was time to return to Mandeville. The villa we were to stay in, called Mountain Top Villa, was located in an area called Avondale Heights, and this is one part of Mandeville where many of these new palatial houses are being built. The villa is very nicely decorated inside and has a great view of the surrounding area. We managed to squeeze in a brief visit to the house of Valerie Dixon, who organizes a Marcus Garvey Festival every February, involving the Resource Village community.




The next morning it was breakfast at the Mandeville Hotel. The poolside setting was very nice. I remember having a dish called mackerel rundown and enjoying our chat with Diana, Valerie, and Mildred Smith-Chang. Mildred authored a book called The Mask is Off, which offers a frank look at the myths and realities for Jamaicans who decide to move to the United States.



We headed west past the town of Spur Tree and onward where we would see the south coast of Jamaica. One location we saw was called Middle Quarters, where the trees provided a lovely canopy over the road and many vendors sold local products. Diana likes her guests to get to know the people they meet and remember them on a first-name basis, so we stopped at one stand run by a woman named Marcie. The specialty, aside from the local fruits, was pepper shrimp.

Marcie at her stand selling fruit and pepper shrimp
Our next stop, in Westmoreland Parish, was the small town of Beeston Spring, which has distinguished itself by providing an example of what local community tourism can do. An article in the Jamaica Gleaner describes the award that the town received in 2010 as "best town in Jamaica" (http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100828/news/news4.html) . The community works hard to provide income, ensure a clean water supply, build or repair structures, and other essentials, with the help of The Sandals Foundation, and much assistance from Diana in the area of training. We picked up Astil Gage, president of the Beeston Spring Community Development Committee, on our way to the town. Our stop was brief by necessity, but we did learn a few things about the community and managed to see the group "The Mighty Beestons" perform traditional Jamaican mento music. This time it was my wife who was invited to dance and leave her comfort zone.

"The Mighty Beestons," mento performers in Beeston Spring

We wrapped up our tour with lunch at Sandals Whitehouse, not far from Beeston Spring. We were able to appreciate the beautiful views of the south coast from the resort just in time before an afternoon rain. (The resort warrants an explanation of its own.) On our way back to Montego Bay, we followed a road that hugged part of the south coast before turning inward and towards the north.


The south coast of Jamaica as seen from Sandals Whitehouse

There were many things that made the trip special, among them conversations with Diana and her friends about the political and economic state of Jamaica, local culture and the efforts to promote it, along with details that would generally fall under the radar in a brief visit, such as the best brand of bottled water, the resort chains that support the community and those that don´t, or the development of Mandeville´s downtown area which is currently too small to accommodate its rapid growth. For just two days, it was remarkable, and a tour of this type could easily be extended to include other local attractions, as has been the case for guests who had more time than we did. There was also no question that after knowing each other virtually for several years, Diana and I would continue to correspond and look for other opportunities to help each other. It is amazing and inspiring to witness how Diana and others in her community give of themselves unselfishly to promote their people´s well-being and build bridges of understanding with those fortunate enough to visit Jamaica.

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