When something makes you feel good, don’t you just want to experience it again and again? That’s how I feel about returning to Jamaica. Somehow, I get the feeling that the pilots feel the same way too! I can sense it as the plane tilts into a gentle curve upon descending, to give window seat passengers on either side a giddy, panoramic view of Paradise.
The unspoiled Caribbean Sea is such a translucent green-blue that you can actually glimpse marlin and dolphin frolicking in the foamy waves below. And those Blue Mountains...splendidly peaking out of swirling white clouds...are a breathtaking sight to behold. Eyes ravenously soak up the view, unable to decide on what to look at first, for fear of missing something awesome.
Flight 201 arrived at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport 15 minutes ahead of schedule. After an incredibly pleasant voyage with a friendly crew and mellowed-out passengers — anxious returnees like me, or excited, wide-eyed first timers who dropped the sour faces and cold demeanor upon boarding — the plane made a smooth transition from sky to runway with the ease of a bird approaching its nest. Maybe that’s why they call it “the skybird.” All onboard saluted the pilot with a grateful round of applause.
On the ground, humidity hangs palpably hot and heavy in the air, then an occasional balmy breeze sweetens the heat. What can be hot and cool at the same time? Such is the enigma of Jamaica. The Seduction has begun. Your senses are primed for the unexpected (in a good way), which is exactly what unfolds on several road trips over the next few days.
Route A3, called “the Junction,” is a popular sight-saturated northern approach En Route to Port Antonio from Kingston. Drivers should take extra care, however, around the increasingly narrowing roads and hairpin turns. Buses and trucks rarely slow down when slipping through these cliffhanger roads. Fascinating plants line enormous water-worn boulders. As the road worsens, the views become even more spectacular. The shores swing back toward Kingston in soft undulating curves quite different from the jagged beauty of the Portland coast.
Without much warning, Route A3 suddenly plunges from daylight into semi-darkness down a tricky, slippery roller-coaster ride, with the ever-present sharp turns, into a dense overgrowth called Fern Gully. Once a riverbed, Fern Gully’s thicket of immense ferns and trees blanket the road and block the sun. This verdant loveliness conjures up visions of imaginary wood nymphs paying homage to a Sun Goddess in a hidden fairyland amid the fronds.
Inland roads offer glimpses of hills full of raw scenery and into typical Jamaican lifestyles. At the core of Middlesex county on the island’s north coast lies one of Jamaica’s premier travel destinations. Magnificent Dunne’s River Falls can be found just west of town. The falls drop 600 ft. into the seacoast in a precipitous series of waterfalls gushing down from lush, wooded limestone cliffs. Visitors often follow the tradition of climbing the cliffs with or without an official “guide.” Often wearing dreadlocks, the guide leads a daisy chain of tourists up the slippery rocks through the falls to the top.
The national motto of Jamaica is Out of Many, One People. This is because Jamaicans are enriched with the racial genes of Africa, Asia, Middle Eastern nations and Europe. Skin tones in most Jamaican families range from the darkest shades of brown and black to the fairest, palest pinks and white — with every combination in between. They all share a common stock. Over the centuries, those individuals seeking commercial opportunities and those transported as slaves intermarried to produce a people who reflect diverse cultures blended into one unique style. A marriage between the Old world and the New, as it were.
Thirsty travelers, take heart! Wherever you go in Jamaica, you are sure to find a bar in the vicinity. Locals hold court at the neighborhood bar. Every Jamaican has his favorite local drinking spot like my father’s favorite hangout, Champion House. Drinks run the gamut from imported whiskies, wines and champagne to Jamaica’s own overproof white rum. Drinking and socializing are usually accompanied by the continuous bang of dominos hitting the table during an intense backroom game. The award-winning beer of Jamaica is Red Stripe. Traditional Jamaican rums are dark and full-flavored with a rich aroma. Rum is a spirit distilled from cane and aged in oaken casks. One of the purest alcoholic beverages, rum is considered superior to vodka, whiskey or gin. 100% overproof white rum — the only “real rum” to locals — is preferred chased with water or milk. This potent elixir has a dual household role as a cure-all, often splashed on the head or sprinkled as a toddy in hot tea, to prevent the common cold.
Now, for the serious business of nourishment. Jamaican foods are true delights — sure to tempt and please. Dishes are spicy, pungent, aromatic, mouthwatering and definitely filling. The secret ingredient in Jamaican food’s homegrown flavor is the unmistakable heat of the mighty Scotch Bonnet pepper. As with the people, Jamaica’s distinctive cuisine is a mixture of African, Chinese, Indian and European influences. The best of all places to sample these treats is in someone’s home, if you’re lucky enough to get invited to breakfast, lunch or dinner. The next best food stops are at roadside or beachfront destinations.
The Hellshire coastline, West of Kingston, consists of a series of caves with charming, hidden white-sand beaches. The laid back fisherman’s beach at Naggo Head, known simply as Hellshire Beach, is regarded as the best of them all. The atmosphere here is relaxed and hassle free. All levels of society enjoy the casual, friendly atmosphere. Resident fishermen haul in overflowing netfulls of the freshest, most flavorful catches-of-the-day for women in colorful bamboo shacks to cook on the beach. Miranda’s Kitchen, run by the gregarious Mother “B,” serves up the best fried fish on the island. Side dishes include your choice of “bammy” (fried cassava cakes), “festival” (fried corn-meal dumplings) or “Johnny cakes” (fried flour dumplings). When it comes to Jamaican dining, the rule of thumb is: leave the lo-carb diets at home and give your taste buds the thrill of a lifetime!
Across the harbor from Kingston on Jamaica’s southeastern coast is Port Royal. Once the capital of Jamaica, Port Royal was infamous in the 16th and 17th centuries as “the wickedest city in the world.” This quiet fishing village sleeps on a notorious, turbulent past. Principal port of pirates in the late 17th century, Port Royal was also regional headquarters for the British Royal Navy when Britannica ruled the seas. To this day, treasure hunters adamantly believe the many legends of fabulous sunken treasures beneath the sea surrounding Port Royal which was destroyed by earthquake in 1692.
Echoes of swashbucklers still cling to soft sea breezes in the fallen city. Captain Morgan’s namesake hotel resides in demure opulence behind an original brick-walled, canon-brandishing precipice. While basking in the shade of swaying almond, coconut and palm trees the Seduction continues. A friendly Rasta man lops off the top of a green water coconut to share the cool, sweet liquid inside.
Less than a mile offshore from Port Royal, a few small atolls called Cays (pronounced “keys”) beckon. Our mission today is Destination Lime Cay, a sailing excursion to the most popular of the tiny islands. Sailing against the pristine azure skyline in splashes of white foam gives one a heady sense of hedonistic exoticism to rival even that of the South Pacific. In the most translucent blue-green ocean below, schools of colorful tropical fish dart gently around you on the walk to shore from the anchored boat.
Lime Cay in all its serene splendor awaits. Seemingly undisturbed and secluded, lush with vegetation, the deserted island gives one the impression of being discovered for the very first time — if you get there early enough! As the day goes on, more boatloads of people arrive, clamoring for their own private slice of Paradise. The more enterprising denizens come equipped with handmade barbecue pits for roasting savory jerk pork and chicken, as incredible aromas waft through the air and boom boxes break the silence.
Further up the coast from Port Royal we find the most breathtaking vistas in all of the Caribbean. North of the Blue Mountains along Jamaica’s northeastern coast, the terrain slopes gently back to the sea in the county of Surrey. Nestled amid Portland’s rugged terrain, tucked back from the roads, we stumble upon a hidden setting of lava rock cliffs, gently caressed by waves. The coastline, carved out of untold ages of volcanic activity, continues to yield its treasures on the drive northward. We encounter the most ruggedly beautiful scenery and quaint hidden inlets, perfect for pondering the incredible Ocean View. The seas swell and currents crash against cliff and sand in some of the island’s biggest breakers.
Virtually anywhere in Port Antonio, you can take a dip in the cool waters, swim or take a boat for a look at more secluded waterfalls in blue-green grottos. It’s no wonder that in the 1940s, movie star Errol Flynn chose to make this magical place his home. On our way through Port Antonio we stopped at The Blue Lagoon, long reputed to be bottomless. At the Trident Hotel, one of the staffers received a gift for her infant daughter from a happy patron to say “thank you” for the royal treatment. Against the backdrop of enormous waves crashing against the bluffs, her young daughter beamed as she showed off The New Dress.
As our journey continued, we found ourselves stopping at an occasional Roadside Oasis to look at its wide assortment of treasures. Arrayed on floor mats or hung by nails against the boards of little kiosks, colorful T-shirts, souvenirs, arts & crafts, luscious fruit, straw baskets and such, vied wildly for attention. Women higglers (salespeople) reign supreme in this mini-marketplace. Higglers are the undisputed queens of the island’s age-old market tradition on busy crossroads where people still meet to trade and barter. The uniform is usually a large apron worn over a dress with huge pockets. The women wear colorful headscarves as protection from the piercing heat of the sun, and keep their money buried in their bosoms. Cheerful greetings embrace you and a generous smile awaits your curiosity. If provoked by your foolishness during the bargaining process, however, these women can become quite loud and quarrelsome, in a good-spirited sort of way!
Jamaicans pride themselves on their sense of humor, but moreso on their sense of rhythm. Yet, their love of laughter, their easygoing loose-limbed style is not exclusively Jamaican. It’s a Caribbean style based on an African worldview of abundance and fertility. Jamaica abounds with the widest range of fruits and vegetables that are always in season. A Woman with Grapes revels in the sensuality of nature’s rhythmic bounty. Could it be that this very rhythm in the land and in the air conspired over years of blending and mixing to make this island the birthplace of Reggae music, Jamaica’s heart and soul.
The game of Cricket, a very British game, has been embraced as the great Caribbean sport of choice among the former colonies of British colonial power. The game revolves around a pair of wickets facing each other from the opposite distant ends of a field. Cricket has vague similarities to American baseball in that a pitcher (called a bowler) tries to hurl a ball (slightly smaller and heavier than a baseball) past a batsman. The batsman then attempts to hit the ball out into the field, out of the reach of the opposing team’s defensive players. Sort of like a home run. The ultimate achievement of batsmen is to hit a “century” — 100 or more runs in a single inning.
Back in the 1950s, this was an easy feat for my father, whose exploits on the cricket field made him a local hero, The Diminutive Batsman, as he was often called in the sports pages of The Daily Gleaner. “Samuels hits 100 again/ Innswood in trouble,” read the headline of Monday, August 14, 1950. The article went on to say, “Leo Samuels again proved himself one of the most outstanding batsmen in local cricket by scoring 127 for Railway against St. Catherine at Lime Tree Oval on Saturday. The young on-side artist and former St. George’s College star, batted delightfully through his team’s 255 for 8 and entered the ranks of 600 runs per year batsmen.” Another headline in the May 31, 1952 Sunday Gleaner read “Samuels hits century against Varsity team,” and read, “Railway’s diminutive run-getter, Leo Samuels, stole the spotlight in yesterday’s start of Senior Cup second half with a dashing 109 against University College of the West Indies at Mona . . .”
Fifty years ago, this was headline news. Nowadays, it takes at least 400 runs to be the King of Cricket. Kudos to Trinidad and Tobago’s Brian Lara. But I’m still extremely proud of my dad’s earlier contributions on this British/Caribbean field of dreams.
Education is free in Jamaica, from Kindergarten to junior and senior secondary, trade and technical school. And, in special cases, to University. More than half the total enrollment in high schools and colleges is on full or partial state scholarships. There is an island-wide network of adult literacy classes. The multi-national University of the West Indies is based in Jamaica. It’s quite a treat to see throngs of well-behaved school children neatly decked out in their crisply starched and pressed uniforms of matching colors. We caught a glimpse of several schoolchildren wandering about for a breath of fresh air, perhaps, to escape the often crowded classrooms and overworked teachers. One particularly surly little miss held court under The Learning Tree with an attentive tutor.
Long before the Civil Rights and Black Power movements by African-Americans, Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940), founded the Universal Negro Movement Association in the 1930s. Jamaican-born Garvey’s Vision sought to gather ancestral Africans back to the homeland. Garvey’s group did indeed become universal as his ideas spread to Central American countries and to the United States where he migrated. Garvey’s doctrine preached self-reliance among Africans at home and abroad. He established the Black Star Line steamship company to serve a back-to-Africa cause.
Garvey ultimately awakened a black consciousness and pride inspiring other African revolutionaries to lead their own countries to independence. In the United States, Garvey’s work planted the seeds of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights movement. Marcus Garvey is considered one of the apostles of black liberation, however, he died virtually penniless in London in 1940. His body was returned to Jamaica and buried with all the pomp and pageantry of a true national hero.
I love this land of mountains and sparkling rivers, of foliage that stays green even in severe drought. Jamaica’s year-round floral abundance gives it one of its many descriptions as the “garden island.” Nearly 3,000 varieties of flowering plants can be found, including 800 found nowhere else in the world. Giant bouquets of gold cassia and flaming pink azaleas rise against the endless azure summer sky. Flowers exuding soft perfume from petals of jasmine, hibiscus, spider lilies, cereus, white jasmine, crocus, poinsettia and bougainvillea of myriad dark and light colors riot over hedges every day of the year. Jamaica’s flowering species are more than any land except Sri Lanka. Flowers bloom everywhere and the whole countryside is ablaze with color.
Miss Mary's Garden is filled with trees of every fruit: lime, orange, ackee, grapefruit, breadfruit, mango, pomegranate, coconut, just to name a few. The cultivation of these fruit was also a part of her income. She worked hard to keep her home self-sufficient. There are trees and bushes of flowers, teas and herbs of many exotic names and uses. Her fowl was used for our Sunday and holiday meals. Whatever we had no use for she either sold or gave away.
As I grew older, my grandmother’s vast garden took on a new kind of beauty. I began to notice how the swaying branches of all the colorful, festive trees held, in breathtaking patterns, the rays of the sun. I became reacquainted with the terra firma of my very existence. My soul whispered back that this place was me. I’ve happily come to the realization that behind the weather-beaten gates of our home exists a place filled with peace and tranquility, a humble treasure. Sometimes on the “fast track” one gets too busy knocking on all the wrong doors in a stressed out, harried quest for things unimportant.
Jamaica’s bird population run the gamut in color and variety. Its national bird, the Doctor Bird, a streamer-tailed hummingbird found only in Jamaica, darts about the island’s flower gardens. Bright yellow, orange and green parrots, parakeets and finches sing in the forest. Lucky to be true Birds of Paradise, more than 200 species have been spotted on the island.
Alas, it’s time to leave this land of countless wonders. Flight 202 tilts upward through the sky above the afternoon rain. Bright sunshine greets the horizon as a shimmering rainbow appears, like a magical wink from the gods. As the plane departs from the island, tips of the Blue Mountains peak out above the clouds to bid me farewell. Am I really, once again, leaving behind my beloved Tropical Dreams of sun, sand and sea? Could one ever forget miles and miles of the finest white sand beaches, the bewitching scenery, the native hospitality, the sparkling blue Caribbean Sea, the deep indigo mountains?
“Never had I seen a land so beautiful,” commented Errol Flynn, “Now I know where the writers of the Bible had got their description of Paradise. They had come here to Jamaica.” Anyone seduced by the siren of the Caribbean Sea can totally relate. There is something innately sensuous about the way the gentle trade winds tease the palm trees, the way the seas massage the sand, the romance exuding from abundant, undisturbed foliage at every turn…the hypnotic hum and whistle of the birds . . .
It’s good to know that I’ll be back again next year.