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.

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