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 piƱa 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.

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