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.

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