Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jamaica 2016 Day 11. The last day

It is a bit sad, but all good things must come to an end. Today was the day in which I had to ride back to Negril, to return my valiant scooter, so I enjoyed the ride there, knowing that it was my last fling. I got to Negril at about 9:30 am and, since I had until 12 noon to return the scooter I pushed past the town into a long stretch of coast dotted with small guesthouses, restaurants, and bars, all shaded by big trees and a general feeling of lassitude. This is exactly the setting in which I imagine a relaxing Caribbean vacation should be spent (of course, you all know I don’t do relaxing, so I would have been out of my mind if I had to spend more than a couple of days here.

Pushing even farther I approached the point farthest west in the island, from where reportedly one can see that best sunsets. I guess I will have to forego this experience until the next time I come.

The return of the motorcycle went without a hitch, although the owner expressed disbelief when I told him I had been as far as Port Antonio (he would have had a heart attack if I had told him I had gone all around the island, with a few mountain crossings to boot). So I got my deposit back, and all of a sudden I have money again (but now I have two US$100 bills, which is about the same as having no money at all, since nobody can break such big bills).

Fortunately I had saved a few Jamaican dollars, which were enough to get me back to Mo Bay, and to buy the makings of dinner. No more restaurant meals for me!

The walk back to the villa was extremely painful. The sun was blazing like I had not experience it blaze since I had arrived in Jamaica, and there was not a lick of wind. I hate being a pedestrian L

Tomorrow at around 10 am my host Future will drive me to the airport, and from there I will first go to Florida and from there to San Antonio, where I should be landing at about 8:30 pm. I will then take the bus to downtown, to catch the 11 pm bus from San Antonio to Monterrey, where I should arrive around 6:30 am of the following day. I will then take a taxi to the airport, to rent a car, and from there will drive two hours to Monclova, where if I am lucky I will arrive before noon. Grand total it will take me about 24 hours of continuous travel, and I can tell you I am not looking forward to it.

I do take with me a happy memory of Jamaica and its people. They are a bit crazy, but they eat well, have fun, and seem to be doing generally OK.


Jamaica 2016 Day 10. Ocho Rios to Mo Bay

The problem of waking up so early in the morning is that once you are ready to go and start your touristic visits everybody else is still asleep. I wanted to visit the Museum of Reggae Music, in one of the older shopping malls, but I had quite a lot of trouble finding the mall, largely because there was no one to ask for directions, and the ones I asked were not quite sure where the place was. Finally one of the motorcycle cops (we call them constables here) told me to follow him and delivered me at the door of the place. I had past it before! Yes, but it is an older mall and the sign is definitely subdued. The whole place was deserted, so I felt like a wraith as I walked its empty walkways, not finding the touted museum. I finally met someone who sadly informed me that the museum no longer existed and, no, she had no idea if it had reopened elsewhere. So I will have to remain ignorant about the truth behind reggae and the Rastafarians.

Driving through Ochi (as we locals call Ocho Rios) I somehow got on the road to Kingston and discovered a particularly pretty stretch of mountain road. It is locally called Fern Gully, and although ferns are not particularly prominent it has a certain magic to it. It is a very narrow gully (road wide) walled by vertical cliffs of hard limestone, and the temperature inside it must be at least 10 degrees lower than in the outside. My little scooter groaned as I drove up the gully, but on the way down made a passable impression of a Ducati negotiating the sharp bends in the road. Great fun!

Ochi plays an important role in the economy of Jamaica because it is the destination of the cruise ships that ply the Caribbean. In order to serve this transient population many attractions have been developed to pluck the visiting tourists of their cash, 20 dollars at a time. Perhaps the most notable of these attractions are the Dunn’s River waterfalls, which are now the centerpiece of a beautiful, relaxing park. I was one of the first ones to get there, so I had a chance to walk through the park when, all of a sudden, 500 tourists arrived all at once, creating a pandemonium among the numerous guides. The high point of this experience is to hold hands in a row of maybe 50 people, and to walk up the falls, stumbling from pool to pool. I got my feet wet, but decided not to participate in the group experience, which might had been fun in solitude but seemed a production line with the horde of tourists.

The road to Mo Bay was mostly ground that I had covered on my second day, so I don’t need to repeat it here. I got back to my villa in Mo Bay at about 3 pm, only to find the place deserted. Since I didn’t have a reservation for the night I didn’t quite wanted to get settled, but I changed into my swimming suit and enjoyed the pool until, an hour later, my host Future came back, together with former lodger Ida, who had just gotten back from Negril. It was nice to see my old friends and feel back at home.

For dinner I went back to the fish restaurant by the water’s edge, where I dined like a king, but where I realized that I was running out of Jamaican currency (the common struggle of running out of money at the end, when you don’t want to get more money for fear that you will end with a lot of money frozen in a foreign currency that you cannot exchange anywhere). Fortunately here you always have the option of paying in dollars, so I put one US$20 bill and two bills of JA$100 on the table, in time for a gust of wind to pick them up and blow them toward the water! Fortunately I managed to rescue the US$20 and one of the JA$100 before they fell on the bay, but the other JA$100 was blown far out to sea, no doubt as some sort of tax to the local spirits.  

Jamaica 2016 Day 9. Port Antonio

There is a subtle difference between the south shore of Jamaica, where Kingston is located, and the north side, in that the wind comes from the north so the waves are more significant and the ocean is more “interesting” in Long Bay. I know because I woke up before sunrise and walked to the beach to dunk myself into the Caribbean Sea and see the sunrise. I got back just in time to greet my excellent host, who invited me a cup of real, Blue Mountain coffee brewed Italian style. It was heavenly. Enrico also explained to me that all the good coffee is for export, and in the rare occasions when Jamaicans drink coffee they prefer instant rather than roasted and brewed. Go figure.

As I headed west I could not help by notice how beautiful the coast is, in stark contrast with the road, which was horribly potholed. No doubt it was this beauty that attracted the type of resorts preferred by the English in the 1920’s: Enormous white mansions surrounded by beautiful gardens, where Miss Marple would have had the chance of practicing her very own brand of sleuthing. They have been kept in pristine condition, so apparently they still attract their fair share of visitors.

Also along this stretch of the coast is the famous Blue Lagoon, a small bay of great depth, where the crystal clear water of the Caribbean acquires a deep turquoise blue color.

Eventually I reached Port Antonio, which turned out to be quite the attractive city. It is a horseshoe-shaped bay, where a good portion of the shore has been turned into a marina and public park. Apparently it was Errol Flynn who came up with the idea (and probably funded it), but the city has kept the park in great shape, and it is now a favorite place for families to go for a walk and have a picnic, or for the younger crowd to go have a drink and dance. One of the horns of the horseshoe is still occupied by an old neighborhood, slightly run down, but where there are all sorts of B&B’s with lots and lots of character.

I had another 80 km to go before getting to my next destination, Ocho Rios, but it was an easy, beautiful ride. I made a couple of detours to go up some interesting canyons, but the roads quickly degenerated into mud tracks that I had no interest to explore.

So I got to Ocho Rios around 3 pm, thinking that this time it would be a good thing to treat myself to a hotel with a swimming pool. Just as I was thinking about this I spied a tiny sign to the Pineapple Court Hotel, in a side street, which was all I could have hoped for. Contrary to what some of my detractors say, I actually took the time to go for a swim, and sat in a lounge chair to read my Kindle and sip a Cuba Libre J   

Jamaica 2016 Day 8. The East Coast

I almost didn’t want to get out of bed. I was so cool and comfortable. Maybe I should stay here until it is time to take my flight back to San Antonio. … Alas, it was all a beautiful dream, but I woke up refreshed and ready to go. Ena had told me that he was going to fix me a typical Jamaican breakfast, and at 7 am she and Roger arrived with all sorts of pots. Ena herself doesn’t eat breakfast, but Roger and I sat to an nice plate of callaloo (what I have so far been calling collard greens, but is here a mix of the green leafy herb callaloo, onions, tomatoes, and garlic), boiled green bananas, plantains, and yams; a cup of coffee, and a glass of fresh orange juice. Delicious!

Having coffee reminded me that I have not had a whole lot of coffee since I came to Jamaica, even though Blue Mountain coffee is reported to be one of the best in the world. So what do Jamaicans drink in the morning if not coffee? Atole! That is correct, they enjoy a thin maize porridge flavored with molasses, peanuts and hominy, and by now I have gotten so used to it that I forgot about coffee.

While having breakfast I discussed my travel alternatives with my gracious hosts: Try to go up to the Blue Mountains, or follow the coast to complete the “circum-navigation” of the island? They emphatically dissuaded  me from the former, “because the roads are so steep and so narrow, and you have all the trucks using that road.” For once I let the voice of reason prevail, and with a forlorn look at the distant mountains I resumed my coastal way, with the idea of turning the east tip of the island and ending in Port Antonio.

The first leg of the trip was trafficy and uncomfortable, but as soon as I had passed Morant Bay the cars disappeared and I had the road for myself. There is just not a lot of people in this side of the island, which is puzzling because it is one of the prettiest stretches (or is beauty inversely related to population?). Plenty of pretty pocket beaches and spectacular displays of foam as the waves crash against the low limestone cliffs. There were also some very attractive canyons joining the shore, and I wasted a few happy kilometers exploring them along solitary twisting roads.

Once I felt I was getting close to Port Antonio I started looking for shelter (even though it was barely 2 pm), and while going through Long Bay happily landed in an ecological guest house that belongs to an Italian family, Enrico, Sibila, and their 10 year old daughter, Noa. The accommodations are simple but very congenial, so after I go get something to eat I am going to take it easy and enjoy the place.

Jamaica 2016 Day 7. Port Royal

Ah, nothing like waking up at dawn with the crashing sound of the waves! I was even motivated to go out for a sunrise walk down the beach, which is here and there interrupted by uplifted terraces of a remarkable coral reef: brain rocks, enormous fans of coral, and oysters that were a good 30 cm long. The fact that it has been uplifted is clear proof that Jamaica is still a very active tectonic element.

Back to reality I had to make an important strategic decision: Shall I continue along the coast, taking two days to get to Kingston, or shall I follow the main road unto the foothills to reach Spanish Town (100 km) or Kingston (120 km) in one day? I leaned for the first route, but when I asked at a gas station, one of the attendants strongly urged me not to go along the coast: “That is the bush, mon. Nobody goes there. It is dangerous because it is the bush.” I think that what he was telling me is that it is a region where they grow marijuana, and where new faces are not welcome, so I braced myself for the main road, knowing that it was going to be stressful because the roads are narrow and traffic was going to be a lot heavier, including big trucks. I was not mistaken, and on at least a couple of occasions the trucks passed so close I thought I was going to be tossed into the shoulder. To add insult to injury I went through at least four squalls that drenched me to the bone, and intervening periods of scorching sun.

I was, therefore, pretty tense by the time I reached Spanish Town, and was totally under-impressed by a lackluster, trafficy village without a well-defined center of town. So I blew out of town, heading for the famous Kingston. Alas, Kingston is a much bigger version of Spanish Town, and I had to find downtown by the old trick of following a bus with the sign “Downtown”. Finally I made it to the port, and scootered up and down some of the streets, but I was once again disappointed by the generally run down aspect of the town (a bit like the French Quarter of New Orleans the morning after Mardi Gras). Most significantly, I did not spot a promising guest house or small hotel. Rats!

I was tired, and hot, and out of ideas about what to do next. Continue along the coast and look for a welcoming beach? How far would I have to go?

I was in Kingston, however, and I could not pass the opportunity to go to Port Royal and see with my own eyes one of the mythical places of my childhood, when I read and dreamt of buccaneers and heartless pirates. So I got back on the road, went around the bay to the airport, and followed the spit of sand at the end of which is Port Royal. The spit forms a natural barrier that extends partially across the mouth of the bay, thus creating the perfect harbor for the likes of Henry Morgan and Blackbeard.

The hamlet reminded me a bit of Isla Mujeres, being probably 10 blocks long and 5 blocks wide, certainly too small to accommodate all the debauchery and mischief that the pirates of my childhood indulged in. At the end of the town stands Fort Charles, erected there to protect the entrance to the Jamaica harbor. Honestly, it looked like a toy fort compared with the monsters erected by the Spaniards and Portuguese (no wonder the pirates went in and out at will), but it had the small historical distinction of being one of the first commands of the then wet-behind-the-ears Horatio Nelson (go tocayo!).

Looking at the displays I learned a fascinating factoid. The spit of land is formed by clean, loose, water saturated sand, so when an earthquake struck Jamaica on June 7, 1692, the sand liquefied, and two thirds of the town slumped into the ocean! No doubt that is where many of my pirates ended their wicked careers. I imagine this event was retold by many a preacher as proof that the wrath of the Lord had visited the lawless and sinful city.

So now, what? I really didn’t fancy getting back on the road, so I asked a young woman if there was a guest house in town, and she surprised me by saying “Yah mon, the Admiral Inn by the beach.” So I headed for the beach, and asking here and there was soon standing in front of a modern looking house, where I was received as a returning hero by Ena and her husband Roger. The room they offered me was … well … it was perfect! It had air conditioning, a little fridge, a sink and a kettle, a comfortable bathroom, a working TV. Wow, I had to come to the pokiest little town in Jamaica to find the perfect den. The back yard is huge, has a cool canopy of beautiful plants, and comfortable lawn chairs where we sat down to chat and laugh for over an hour. Roger is a retired Coast Guard Commander, Ena is a retired secretary, and this guest house is their retirement project. Both were intelligent, charming, and very curious about my family, Mexico and the political situation in the US. What a great couple!

Jamaica 2016 Day 6. Treasure Beach

I didn’t sleep very well. I was staying in  grandma’s house, but grandma lives in a different house, and this one seems to be used by cousins, nephews, and grandsons as a convenient home away from home, so I was woken several times by people turning on the light and moving through. I solved the temperature problem by keeping the door open, but that just encouraged further foot traffic. Nor surprisingly I woke up rumpled, sticky, and a bit grumpy. There was no easy source of water from washing up, so au juice I went for a morning walk around the village. I have to say that this was the highlight of my acquaintance with the friendly people of Jamaica. I stick out like a sore thumb, but everyone greeted me like an old friend, and I felt that the village as a whole had taken me as a welcome visitor.

Down the mountain I came, into the hot coastal plain, just in time to take the Crocodile Safari Tour in the Black River. It was OK. The crocodiles we met are clearly used to the tourist boats, and gladly come out of the mangrove to eat the chicken that the boats feed them. They are fine looking animals that apparently do well in their semi-civilized surroundings.

The estero of the Black River is otherwise not very rich in wildlife. We saw a rookery of herons, with an obliging croc ready to eat all the chicks that fall from the nests, but otherwise saw nothing of turtles, frogs, or any other birds. The day was pretty hot, and it was already 10 am, so maybe it was just too late, or we were just too loud.

I was hot, stinky, and in need of a bath, so after stopping at the bank for the third time Jamaican dollars flow like water), I decided to head out to Treasure Beach, which is much touted as one of the best beaches of Jamaica. I got there at 1 pm, at the peak of the midday heat, and was glad when I finally booked a room, took a shower, and took a nap under the cooling effects of a fan. I dozed on and off until 5 pm, when I finally got the energy to go down to the beach (the beach is OK, but really nothing spectacular), followed by a log-updating session. By sunset I had a delicious dinner of fried fish, rice and beans, and veggies, and felt at peace with the world.

Jamaica 2016 Day 5. Accompong

I decided I didn’t want to stay in Black River after all. The accommodations were substantially subpar, and the town itself didn’t seem to offer enough in terms of sightseeing or entertainment. So I headed back into the mountains, with the goal of visiting the Appleton Rum Estate. It was a pretty ride, and the estate itself is well kept and attractive. I signed up for the tour, and for starters was offered a chill rum punch while my guide was called in. The congenial young man took me on a walk through the visitor grounds, where memorabilia from older times is collected to show the visitor how rum was made. The distillery was established in 1749, as the center piece of 1500 acres of sugar cane fields, nestled in Siloah Valley, a karstic valley surrounded by ridges of limestone, which affords it unique protection from hurricanes. The sugar cane used to be pressed in trapiches, where a donkey would provide the needed mechanical power to roll the cane and extract the juice. Now of course it is done by chopping the cane and using industrial presses. In times of old the leftovers were used to feed the donkeys, but now they are use to fuel the waste to energy plant that powers the whole operation. Once the cane juice is extracted, it is progressively boiled into a mixture of molasses and sugar crystals. The sugar is separated with a centrifuge, and the molasses are mixed with water and yeast to ferment into a kind of “beer” with 4% alcohol. This “beer” is then distilled in several steps until the clear liquid reaches a 60% or more alcohol level.

The young rum is placed in oak barrels to age, and in the warm climate of Jamaica it ages four times faster than in cooler climates. During the day, as the barrel warms up, the fluid expands and is forced into the pores of the wood; some of it necessarily evaporates, keeping the rum from overheating, and the fraction that is lost is variously referred as “The angels’ share” or “the Devil’s cut”, depending on your inclinations. During the night the rum cools down and is pulled into the barrel, thus allowing the wood to breath.

After 3 years the rum develops a slight yellow tint, from the tannins in the barrel. At this point some of the rum is pulled out, filtered, and sold as the white rum that some prefer for mixing. The rest of the rum is allowed to keep ageing, taking more and more of an amber color as the years go by. Some rum can be aged up to 50 years! The brew master then uses up to 20 different batches of rum of several ages, to mix a consistent product that is then bottled as 15-year, 20-year, or 30-year rum (meaning that a good portion of the mix is up to 30 years old in the case of the latter).

Much of this I learned at the end of the tour, when you are brought to the bar and parked in front of a row of different rums, given a stack of thimble sized cups, and are encouraged to try as much and as many of the different rums. What a delightful learning experience!

From there I headed farther up the mountain, to the village of Accompong, one of four independent Maroon “nations” within Jamaica. It was a hell of a climb for my poor scooter, but I finally made it and was promptly greeted by a representative of the Colonel (the elected authority), who collected my visitor fee of US$ 20 and the proceeded to walk with me through the village, showing me the key places (for example, the Harida Tree where town meetings and festivals are held), and telling me about their history.

It turns out that the Spaniards had a good 150 years to import slaves into Jamaica, many from the Congo region, and when the British took over the island in 1655 these slaves retreated to the inaccessible mountains and from there fought a guerilla warfare against the Brits. The great Maroon leader, Cudjoe, is remembered as one of their heroes. Finally, in 1739, Cudjoe signed a peace treaty with the British and the new Maroon nation was granted 1,500 acres where they would be able to live, free and independent from the Jamaican government in perpetuity in exchange for a permanent peace.

It is interesting that, to this day, the Maroon nations retain great autonomy. They do not pay property taxes, elect their own leaders, run their own schools, and generally manage their own affairs. They don’t have a public source of water supply, so they collect rain from their roofs and store it in big barrels or cisterns. On the not so great side they have no representation with the Jamaican government and must handle their own public works. I did notice they have metered electrical power and two cell towers, but my guide tells me that they have to maintain their roads in a piecemeal fashion (not very good maintenance from what I can see). They can apply for government grants, but the process is very slow, and the last successful grant was given over 25 years ago.

My guide’s name is Mark Wright, and all the other people I met have English names. The practice arose from the slavery practice of giving the slaves the same family name as their owner, but it is not clear to me how it entered into the Maroon nation (they are not named Rodriguez or Perez). Mark is a really nice chatty guy, who doubles as the native doctor with knowledge of herbal medicine. The town also has a clinic with a full time nurse, and where a doctor comes from time to time, again an anomaly in the workings of this nation.

Mark arranged for my evening meal, which consisted of bread fruit, ackee with onions and tomatoes, and salted cod fish. It was very good, strongly reminiscent of “slave food”. Bread fruit was a welcome surprise: The Brits imported it from the South Pacific, and it grows in profusion in the humid climate of Jamaica. It is a tall tree, from which a green bumpy fruit the size of a cantaloupe hangs. They pluck the fruit and bake it by simply putting it on a small fire, rotating it from time to time, until the outer layer is turned into charcoal. Then they scrape the crust, cut the fruit, toss away the seeds in the center, and presto, you have a doughy bread in the shape of cantaloupes slices. I made friends with little Alguer, a 6 year old boy that was supper friendly, and he ended eating from my plate slices of bread fruit topped with the mix of ackee fruit and salt fish. Great fun!

I ended spending the night in Accompong, in a sultry room without bathroom. I was also invited to the birthday celebration of Mark’s 14-year old son. The party was a village affair, with lots of loud music, and did not actually get going until I was ready to go to bed. I stayed for the singing of Happy Birthday and the cutting of the colorful and huge cake. The main eating of chicken stew came later, and by that time I was already in bed.