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 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.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My favorite Caribbean beaches

For a beach to rate among my favorites, it usually has to have powdery white sand, calm blue or bluish-green waters that I can float in, and a beautiful setting. If it doesn't have one of these characteristics, it can have some other factor that compensates for not having one of the others. I consider myself very fortunate to have enjoyed a number of these, and it's hard to pick an all-time favorite. All of the Caribbean beaches I highlight here have something special to offer.

Playa Flamenco (Flamenco Beach), on the small island of Culebra, which lies to the east of the main island of Puerto Rico, has a dramatic crescent-shaped white-sand beach. Culebra is accessible by ferry from Fajardo, or you can brave a small prop plane from San Juan - the way I decided to go. The waves, at least when I was there, were not conducive to floating, but the panoramic view is incredible, and as there is only one small hotel along the whole crescent, the location is as unspoiled looking as can be expected in our day and age. The sticks in the first picture formed an enclosure where sea turtle eggs were protected.
Playa Flamenco, Culebra, Puerto Rico, with sea turtle egg enclosure
Another view of Playa Flamenco, Culebra, Puerto Rico

Pink Sands Beach, on Harbour Island (near Eleuthera) in the Bahamas, has the edge over Playa Flamenco in terms of the calmness of the water, though it doesn't have the dramatic crescent shape that Playa Flamenco has. However, the hues that the pinkish sand and the water form are remarkable. There are a few entrances to the beach but my favorite is between the Pink Sands Resort and the Coral Sands Resort. As you walk down the short hill through lush vegetation, the beautiful beach opens up before your eyes. There are a string of low-key, but expensive, properties that sit on this hill overlooking the beach. (Think location, location, location!) If the accommodations are out of your price range, you can take a day ferry to Harbour Island from Nassau.
Pink Sands Beach, Harbour Island, Bahamas
Pink Sands Resort overlooks the beautiful Pink Sands Beach on Harbour Island

Grace Bay Beach, on Provo in the Turks and Caicos Islands, is 12 miles long and also forms a nice crescent. The waters are calm and relaxing, and diving options are available. In spite of the development along its shores, the beach is clean and the water is clear. While at this beach, I heard someone say that she felt that she "died and went to heaven." This view is from the Beaches Turks and Caicos resort.

Grace Bay Beach, Provo, Turks and Caicos Islands

Boquerón, also known as Cabo Rojo, is on the southwest corner of Puerto Rico. It is one of the eleven "balnearios" or public beaches on the island and has changing facilities close by. You're a short drive away from town and the view of the palm trees behind the beach is very nice.

Boquerón, Puerto Rico
Sandals Montego Bay in Jamaica has its own private beach, and what makes it a winner is having the accommodations and the food (especially the pizza!) in close proximity. The waters are definitely calm and good for relaxing. Couples take advantage of the romantic setting to reconnect. Even if you're staying at Sandals Carlyle or Sandals Royal Caribbean, you can take a shuttle to this resort and take advantage of the beach and other amenities.
Sandals Montego Bay, Jamaica

The beaches at South West Bay and Fresh Water Bay, in Providencia, a small island which is part of Colombia, don't have the prettiest sand, but they both have the huge advantage of being on an island that sees very little tourism and seems to exist in another dimension - a truly special place. In fact, when I speak about it to people, many of them don't seem to know of its existence. Add to the fact that you have to take two flights, or one flight and a catamaran, from Bogotá to get there, and it is likely that Providencia will remain tranquil.

South West Bay (Bahía Suroeste), Providencia, Colombia

Fresh Water Bay (Bahía Aguadulce), Providencia, Colombia

You can take a one-hour boat ride from Cartagena, Colombia to the area of 26 small islands called Islas del Rosario. We spent the day on this small beach located on an island in the chain called "La Media Naranja". The waters closest to the shore are crystal clear, and gradually deepen in color. We took a tour where a fresh fish dish was included for lunch.

Islas del Rosario, Colombia
Store Bay in Tobago is a small beach, but it has the added advantages of being walking distance from the airport and the jump-off point for the glass-bottom boats that take you to Buccoo Reef. Tobago is a short hop by air from Trinidad. Tobago is at the southern end of the Eastern Caribbean chain and suffers less from hurricane damage than its neighbors further north. This is another laid-back destination, and one of the locals came up to me to give me good advice, when it was clear that he had nothing to gain personally, and he was just being friendly and helpful.

Store Bay, Tobago

Cabbage Beach, also known as Paradise Beach, is on Paradise Island, Bahamas and easy walking distance from the Atlantis complex. There are waves, so it's not a gentle floating beach, but the nice white sand and the convenience more than make up for that. Atlantis, of course, has a wide variety of activities. There are two smaller beaches to the west of this one, also bordering Atlantis.
Cabbage Beach (aka Paradise Beach), Paradise Island, Bahamas

Shoal Bay in Anguilla has blindingly white sand and striking blue waters - it seems too good to be true.  The island itself is flat and scrubby, highlighting the fact that the true headliner is the shoreline. Anguilla is low-key and its accommodations are on the high end in terms of price. I found the people to be extremely friendly. As one islander put it, "Here on the island, we are all as one." To get to Anguilla, it's best to fly to St. Martin/St. Maarten and take the short ferry from Marigot, on the French side. Remember that crossing over to Anguilla is visiting another country, as it belongs to the UK, and you'll be asked to show your passport.

Shoal Bay Beach, Anguilla

Johnny Key, a short boat ride from San Andrés, in Colombia, has nice sand but very rough waters, which don't prevent people from attempting to swim in it. The rough water, though, is a gorgeous aquamarine color, probably the prettiest color I've seen anywhere. This is a very popular excursion, and you usually will pay one price for both the boat ride and a lunch of fresh fish.
Johnny Key, San Andrés, Colombia
Great Bay Beach in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island shared between the Netherlands and France, was really busy when the cruise ships pulled in. I would go there early in the morning and float in the water, avoiding the midday crowds. This beach has the advantage of being conveniently located close to the restaurants and duty-free shops, though return visitors often will speak more highly of other beaches on the island. Still, because of the convenience, I found myself coming back here. This view of Great Bay was taken near Fort Willem, on a hill overlooking the bay.
Great Bay, St. Maarten

It would be difficult to argue that Negril, Jamaica does not have all that one needs to relax on the beach and in the water. For all its laid-back nature, its delights are well-organized for the visitor. Plenty of eating options, activities limited only by one's budget, and a wide variety of accommodations. Vendors can be persistent at times, but a local's advice to be polite but firm will take care of almost all situations. I didn't experience any major hassle from them, and my stay there was very enjoyable.

Seven Mile Beach in Negril, Jamaica
The Treasure Beach area in southern Jamaica has neither white sand nor calm waters, but there is something incredible about the surroundings that defies description. An air of tranquility blankets the entire region, beckoning you to relax, and resistance to its charms is futile. I allowed Treasure Beach work its magic on me as I walked the surroundings at the Treasure Beach Hotel and its lovely gardens, then stepped down to the beach to take a walk and watch the crashing waves. Actually, the sound of the waves is an integral part of the relaxation experience. There are other accommodations in the area, such as Jake's Place, Sunset Resort, Taino Cove and Marblue, that will likewise take you on the same relaxing journey.

View of Calabash Bay from the Treasure Beach Hotel, Jamaica

Conclusions? I found myself relaxing at all of these beaches at one time or another. I could go back to any one of them and feel content. There were other Caribbean beaches not mentioned here that were also nice. Decide for yourself what you want most. Do you want a place that's convenient and has many options of things to do and places to eat? Or is a quiet place without these frills most appealing to you? You'll be sure to find a beach that suits your needs.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Two weeks experiencing community tourism in Jamaica - introduction (more to come!)

With Colonel Frank Lumsden of the Maroon community in Charles Town. The Maroons are the descendants of runaway slaves who fought off the British and established their own free communities throughout Jamaica.
From July 8 through 21, I visited Jamaica courtesy of Diana McIntyre-Pike and the Countrystyle Community Tourism Network. During this visit, I stayed in 6 hotels and 4 homestays, stopped at 14 additional properties, ate in 27 different locations, took 12 individual tours, delivered a presentation in one hotel, appeared on live television, and attended a convention where the Prime Minister of Jamaica spoke. All these experiences were organized with my particular wishes in mind, while keeping to a schedule and including areas that were worthy of showcasing. The overall theme of the trip was the entire concept of "community tourism," which Diana has pioneered in Jamaica and is ready to promote in other areas of the Caribbean.

I will describe how I experienced community tourism during this trip rather than attempt to define the concept, so as not to pigeonhole it in any fashion. It is definitely not a niche market unto itself, but rather an approach. The easiest way to describe community tourism is that regardless of the activity, the focus is always on having an authentic encounter with the land, the people and their way of life. However, it would be wrong to assume that any authentic encounter, some of which happen by accident, would automatically fall into the category of community tourism. Instead, these authentic experiences are organically fused into a whole which carries with it a set of assumptions and values, some of which are:
  • Isolating the visitor from the community by means of a series of barriers is the direct opposite of what tourism is meant to provide to both visitor and host. 
  • For tourism to be sustainable, its benefits must be made available to people of all social and economic levels. 
  • The community has the right to be compensated for its labor when receiving visitors.
  • For tourism to serve the community, the community must have a voice in determining how it will be undertaken in its space.
  • The tourism infrastructure must not change the landscape in a way that is detrimental to the land or its inhabitants.
  • It is possible to achieve a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship between much of the existing tourism infrastructure and the growing community tourism infrastructure. In fact, the existing tourism infrastructure can provide a bridge between the visitor and the community tourism experience.
  • The logistics and communication behind any tourism endeavor are best handled by a group that understands, engages and advocates for the community, while also understanding the expectations of visitors.
  • The tourism experience can be customized even more than what typically happens in package tours.
  • For community tourism to achieve meaningful exchanges, the visitor must be able to spend time with the local people and get a glimpse of how they really live and what is important to them. 
It would be a gross understatement for me to say that I found the experience highly rewarding. The connections that I established with people made me feel that I was one of them, and from what I could sense from their reactions, they likewise felt some special connection with me, that our destinies from that moment on would be intertwined. This feeling strikes such a responsive chord inside oneself that it seems absurd to reduce tourism solely to dollars and statistics. True, we need to work and earn a living to sustain ourselves, and it is the responsibility of any industry to create lasting sources of income, but the condition of our souls transcends any of these concerns. If the industry is earning income from their visitors, and the experience resonates as hollow to both visitors and hosts, this cannot help but drag us all down.

There were so many facets to the trip, encompassing history, crafts, music, flora and fauna, that I will be dealing with these in several articles, some on this site and others in different publications. These topics have been the subject of books and articles by others, so I will do my best to approach these subjects from unique perspectives. I will also showcase different places I visited.

Both Diana McIntyre-Pike and the Countrystyle Community Tourism Network are on Facebook.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Photo album of Monserrate, the mountain overlooking Bogota in Colombia

For centuries, one of the primary attractions of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, has been the mountain called Monserrate overlooking the center of town. Its height is 3,152 meters or 10,341 feet above sea level, compared to the city proper at 2614 meters or 8576 feet. This mountain reminded the Spaniards of a similar mountain in Catalonia called Montserrat, hence the name. Monserrate also shares with Monserrat its popularity as a pilgrimage for the faithful, who visit the church at the top to pray for assistance or express thanks for prayers answered.

Whenever I go to Bogotá, Monserrate seems to beckon me to go to it, time and again, especially as the mountain and church, which are on the eastern side of the city, are visible from virtually any vantage point. As a graduate student, I first went to the top in 1980 with some of my fellow students, and my latest trip was in 2012 with the family. The appearance of the site has improved greatly over the years.

There are two options to take the comfortable route to the top: by inclined railway or "funícular," or by cable car or "teleférico." Regardless of which means of transportation is taken, the ticket for the round trip is pricey by the standards of Colombian attractions. The other option is to take the long walk to the top via the footpath, but it is generally recommended to do this only on the weekends when there are many more people making the same trip, and of course if your physical condition permits it. I climbed up once with a large group back in 2004, but we opted to take one of the easy routes down. There is a page in Spanish, updated in April 2013, explaining the restrictions in using the footpath, including hours that the path is open to the public.

It's inevitable to find fellow foreigners when traveling to Monserrate. On the one short trip we took in 2012, I met travelers from the United States, Canada, France, Brazil and Japan. There are plenty of souvenirs for the visitor to choose from and lots of delicious food at all price ranges.

For more information, go to the official English-language page for the Cerro de Monserrate.

From Monserrate one can also see the Cerro de Guadalupe, which is higher than Monserrate and features a statue of the Virgin overlooking the city. The Bogota webpage for the Cerro de Guadalupe mentions that public transportation services this attraction on Sundays for celebration of Mass. Inquire locally about schedules and conditions. (Note: There is no safe footpath to the top of Cerro de Guadalupe.)

The building at the base of Monserrate

There are stands to buy food and drinks at the bottom as well as at the top

The rail cars (in Spanish: "funícular") used to make the climb have changed over the years

Pulling out of the station; an older train (red) can be seen at the right 

Higher and higher

One view while ascending
The "funicular" is about to disappear into the tunnel
In the tunnel, near the top

You see this sign shortly after leaving the "funícular" rail station: 10,259 feet above sea level.  From there you climb higher to reach the sanctuary. The abbreviations in the Spanish text stand for "metros sobre el nivel del mar" or meters above sea level.
The climb after leaving the "funícular" station

View of nearby Cerro de Guadalupe, which is higher than Monserrate
Lots of pretty plants at every step of the way

Nearly at the top, facing the front of the sanctuary
Looking to the southwest of Monserrate

The part of Bogotá nearest the station to Monserrate

Cerro el Tablazo is the name of the flat mountain visible in the center
View in the distance, past the edge of Bogota

Bogotá extending north

The beginning of the path down the mountain. The path is best used on weekends when there is safety in numbers.

Inside the sanctuary

Another view inside the sanctuary

The statue of the Black Virgin or "Virgen Morena"

View "behind" Bogota, facing east

Going toward the food and crafts stands behind the church

Lots of foreigners as well as locals congregate in this area

Lots of souvenirs to choose from

Still more souvenirs. After so many years of traveling to Colombia, I gravitate toward food

Homer Simpson couldn't be forgotten, right?

The famous Colombian hat called "sombrero vueltiao"

Ruanas, hats and men's shoulder bags, called "carrieles"

Coca tea comes from one of the indigenous populations of Colombia

Achiras, a favorite snack made of cheese and a local flour

At the top are replicas of jeeps and the folk buses called "chivas." Men's hats are still popular; at times you will even see women from the countryside wearing these, as is common throughout the Andes. The bag in the left center reads "Guajira," a province in the north of Colombia.

This is during a weekday, but Monserrate still draws a crowd

Lots to eat, but my favorite are the crunchy roasted corncobs

View of the church from the souvenir stands

In the center you can see scarves with the logos of two of Bogota's soccer teams: Millonarios (blue) and Santa Fe (red). The yellow bag below the scarves has the pattern of the "molas" of the Kuna people of northwestern Colombia and Panama

Returning to the church from the souvenir stands

Buildings further down the hill, Cerro de Guadalupe and another mountain in the background

More panoramic views of Bogota

A popular restaurant on the left

The frailejón or espeletia grows at the higher elevations

There is a path for Stations of the Cross behind the sanctuary and extending down the mountain on the other side

Looking back toward the church along the Way of the Cross

A tall eucalyptus tree with ferns to the right. The eucalyptus tree has a characteristic fragrance. 

The flowers that grow at different elevations are fascinating

Many ferns also grow in this area

The top features some nice restaurants as well as a cafeteria

Cable car or "Teleférico" station, where we will begin our descent
Workers in a precarious position

Cable car beginning its descent

Looking straight down from the front of the cable car or teleférico

Lots of interesting plants are visible during the ascent or descent

Now from the bottom, looking upward

This pretty sight is at the bottom

Back where we started!

Monserrate beckons...again!