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.

Jamaica 2016 Day 4. The hellish road to Black River

I started comparatively late this morning, largely because I wanted to say goodbye to my fellow lodgers, and by the time I got underway, at 9 am, the sun was already blazing. I normally wear a shirt and on top of it the black exoskeleton that protects my arms, elbows, shoulders, and back, so I felt like a trussed turkey thrust in the hot oven. Once I got going, however, the breeze of the scooter cooled me down a bit.

I had been given careful instructions on how to get to Black River by crossing the mountains, so it was with great confidence that I left the coastal plain and started ascending. The road was extremely narrow, and I had all sorts of jerks driving close on my butt. Some particularly annoying ones blared their horns just as they were passing me, which in a couple of occasions startled me into a swerve. At least the road was passable, and the number of cars diminished as I continued to ascend. As I mentioned before, there are precious few road signs, so I had to stop from time to time to ask for directions, which were at best of marginal accuracy. The end result is that I lost my way (or at least the most trodden path) and pretty soon I was motocrossing across the most miserable road I have ever encountered (and I though I had seen in it all in Vietnam!), swerving to avoid enormous potholes that were threatening to swallow me, bouncing through stretches where the road had simply disappeared in a mass of loose rocks, or negotiating hairpin bends at the edge of the precipice. I really felt sorry for the folks who rented me the scooter.

In compensation the view was grandiose, and I really felt I was living up to my pledge of being an adventure traveler. At one point I got into a straight, smooth stretch of the road that crossed a mountain meadow, and I felt I was safe giving the engine gas. The noise startled a myriad of butter-colored butterflies, which would have been a very spiritual experience were it not for the fact that each one of them became a small projectile that could splat against me like a high-speed bullet.

Today is Sunday, and even in the remote mountain villages I encountered lots of old gentlemen in their Sunday bests, and ladies wearing beautiful white dresses and handsome hats, going to or coming back from church. I decided to track one of these groups back to the church from where they were coming, and found myself looking at an old structure built of limestone blocks. One or two of the ladies had remained behind chatting, and upon seeing me they kindly invited me to come in and look at their church. One of them took the role of tourist guide and informed me that the church had originally been a hospital for slaves, built out of ballast stones (the stones with which sailing ships were ballasted on the empty trip from England to Jamaica, which were left behind once the cargo of sugar and bananas had been loaded). From that she proceeded to tell me that Sam Sharpe, a black slave preacher, had lived in a neighboring town, and that in 1847 he had talked the slaves into not working on the holly day of Christmas. The plantation owners retaliated against the slaves, who then rose up in what is now known as the Christmas rebellion. This was a big deal for the colonial government, and even though they managed to capture Sharpe and hung him in the main square at Montego Bay, the outcry of the slaves resonated throughout the British empire, and a year or two later the British Parliament abolished slavery throughout its vast empire.

I was beginning to get worried because all that mountain climbing was consuming a lot of fuel, but at last I went over the last ridge and far in the distance I could see the ocean. Barring any mechanical mishap I should be able to coast down to the shore.

I got distracted from my worries when I saw a perfectly manicured visitors’ center and, oh miracle of miracles, a sign inviting the traveler to visit the YS Waterfalls. I remembered that Future had told me in Mo Bay that this was a favorite place of Jamaican families, who in holidays are attracted in droves to swim in the pools and play in the waterfalls. Unfortunately I was carrying my backpack with me, and was encased in my protective armor, so I had no chance to change into my swimming trunks. Still, I enjoyed hiking along the stream, contemplating the refreshing and very pretty waterfalls (remember that I was feeling like roasting turkey), and seeing families and lots of kids playing in the swimming pools. It is a beautifully managed spot, and I sincerely hope that more places like this keep being developed around the island.

Finally I reached Black River and the petrol station. What a relief! This was my destination for the day, and it was only 4 pm, so I was looking forward to getting to my hotel and resting a bit. Ah, but my toils were not yet at an end. The Waterloo Guest House proudly boasts to have been the first house to be served by electricity in the whole island, but it seems that outside of this early distinction very little has been made to maintain the place. In fact, the main house seems to be at the point of near collapse. The hotel rooms are in the back, in a more “modern” building, but they would get a negative double star designation as far as comfort goes. In the first room assigned to me there was no water, and in the second one the television doesn’t work. I had made a three-night reservation, but I am afraid I am going to cancel tomorrow and try my luck elsewhere. So is the life of the adventurer.

To cheer myself up I went for a ride along the coast in the cool of the late afternoon, and had a delicious fish dinner at a roadside stand. The chef outdid himself and flattered by my compliments invited me to his birthday party on Thursday, to an encouraging chorus of all his friends. I will have to seriously consider this invitation. 

Jamaica 2016 Day 3. Discovery Bay

Today I headed east along the coast, past a gauntlet of resorts strewn over a distance of 20 km. The entrances are zealously guarded by tall walls and forbidding doors, but you can still see the general layout, which in some instances resemble small, tightly packed towns with domes and minarets.

Leaving behind the beautiful people I reached the town of Falmouth, which in its time was the seat of British colonial wealth. The town retains some of its Georgian architecture, much battered by time and neglect. I walked a bit in the old downtown, where the old market still stands, but it was early and most of the stalls were closed. The courthouse and a couple of churches are silent witnesses to the past importance of the town, but overall I was under-impressed. It was here, however, that I found Juici Patties, a chain that specializes in the baking of empanadas or patties filled with a mush of beef, chicken, or veggies. I enjoyed all of them as a much delayed breakfast, and my outlook of the town definitely changed for the better.

My next stop was Discovery Bay, where presumably Columbus first made landfall in 1494. I stopped at Columbus Park, and availed myself of the services of a local historian, who explained that, because of the limestone terrain, there are no surface creeks, so Columbus was much annoyed at not finding water to replenish his supplies and thus called it Bahia Seca (Dry Bay). He also confirmed that it was during his third voyage that he made landfall in Jamaica. The park also contained an odd exhibition of artifacts from the 200 years when Jamaica was a lead producer of sugar and bananas for the Brits. Among them was a tally machine that inspired Harry Belafonte’s song:

   Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
   Daylight come and me wan' go home
   Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana
   Daylight come and me wan' go home

   Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch
   Daylight come and me wan' go home
   Six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch
   Daylight come and me wan' go home

My informant made a very credible imitation of Belafonte and had me in stitches.

Another claim to fame of Discovery Bay is that it is the loading point of the bauxite that is another of the big exports of Jamaica. As I was there a big ship, named Pangea, was being loaded with the orange bauxite powder, which tints everything around the loading dock, the conveyor belts, and the gigantic silos where it is stored prior to loading. The ship looked to me that it was listing heavily to port, and did not look particularly seaworthy, but I guess they would not use a cruise ship to transport ore.

I went a little farther, to Runaway Bay, so named after the slaves that attempted to escape from the island, and finally got a chance to walk in a public beach. Beautiful, but I had to fend the many offers of marijuana by enterprising locals.

Tired of the coastal road I turned inland, along one of the many twisting roads that cut through the luxuriant vegetation. It was a joy ride, without the benefit of a single road sign, so imagine my surprise when all of a sudden I found my self in Brown’s Town, birthplace (and now also resting place) of the famous Bob Marley. It is a typical mountain town, precariously hanging from the steep sides of the mountain, with a bustling market place. Unfortunately there are no signs that the town remembers its most famous son, and had it not been for a rusted sign outside a residence that read “Bob Marley’s Mausoleum”. I would have never guessed.

The way back home was pleasant, with at least one fantastic outcrop showing a pinchout in the folded limestone sequence, and got me home in time to enjoy a swim in the pool of my villa, an easy conversation with my fellow lodgers, and finally a short ride to the Seafood Speak-EZ, where I dined on conch stew and a Red Stripe beer by the seaside, while listening to music and the happy sounds of the locals.

Jamaica 2016 Day 2. Negril

I woke up at 6 am, ready to go, only to find out that Future had locked the place tight so I couldn’t even get to walk in the beautiful garden. Finally at 8:30 am he made an appearance, and only because he had promised to drive one of the girls to one of the hotels to catch a canopy tour. I tagged along and got dropped near downtown, with the fixed idea in my mind that I had to (a) had breakfast, and (b) get me a set of wheels. Breakfast was easy, as I spied a hole-in-the-wall place that was making a brisk business packing lunches for day workers. I went in and, in between the craziness of serving to-go lunches, got a nice serving of brown stew with chicken (a famous Jamaican delicacy), steamed collard greens, baked potatoes and banana, and two dumplings that were dense and flavorless but clearly packed with energy.

My search for a rental scooter was, alas, disappointing. A couple of leads I got from people on the street led to places that had already closed, and when I finally asked a tourism policeman he told me that he did not want me following anyone who promised to show me a place (that is when robberies happen), that there were no rental places in MoBay (that is what we locals call Montego Bay), and that I was going to have to go to Negril, 70 km away to rent a scooter. He also sternly admonished me to take a taxi to the bus depot “because that is not a part of town where a solo visitor should be seen walking around”. OK, I bowed to authority, took a pesero and 10 minutes later was on my way to the town of Lucea, where I changed buceticos, and after maybe an hour grand total I was delivered to the taxi terminal in Negrin. Note to self: Next time make sure they drop you off in downtown, and not 5 kilometers in the outskirts.

I was happily walking down the road when the first of many “volunteers” stopped and, after a brief conversation, convinced me that he would take me to the best place to rent a scooter. It was OK, and he earned his tip, but in retrospect I wish I had done more shopping before settling for a Susuki 125 cc scooter for $40 per day. Once in charge of my own transportation I was beset by touts who wanted to guide me to the waterfalls, and the beach, and the countryside, which of course was the last thing I wanted to do. Unfortunately one of them distracted me at the petrol station, and I ended paying ten times as much as I needed to (JA$5,500 when it was really JA$550; had I been able to concentrate I would have immediately figured out that I could not have possibly put US$55 in the tank). I did come back to the petrol station, and managed to shame the guy into giving me back JA$2,500, but it was still the most expensive gas tank I have filled.

Not feeling like going through the gauntlet of the touts I just took a random road out of Negril, and making use of my much celebrated sense of orientation managed to navigate through a network of charming little roads, farms, and countryside, while still joining the main road between Negril and Lucea. I had already passed Lucea on the way to MoBay, when, at about 2 pm, I see a black wall of rain ahead of me. “Rats!”, I thought, “I need to find shelter on a small roadside restaurant.” 30 seconds later I was drenched to the bone and was forced to skid under the canopy of a large tree. Ten minutes later the rain had abated a bit, so I was back on the road and, half a kilometer later, found the most idyllic roadside shack, right by the bay, where I was given welcoming shelter by the two young women tending the counter, and the smiling older waitress. I order a Red Ribbon beer, and sat on a stool to see the rain pass. Right at that moment the movie High Crimes (2002, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd) was starting, and Joan (the older lady) and I got hooked on it, discussing the events as they were being disclosed and being generally involved as the peanut gallery. After the movie was done I asked for dinner, and Joan was glad to fix me a plate of jerk pork (a kind of spicy carnitas), rice with beans, and collard greens. I was almost finished when she came and sat by my side, and very seriously she directed me to get back home before it was dark. “Jamaican people are very nice”, she said, “but there are a few who are not so nice, and I don’t want you to get into trouble.” So we said goodbye, she told me once again to drive carefully, and an hour later I was in MoBay, just in time to buy some essentials in the supermarket and reach my beautiful villa.

There are four guests right now: A young New Yorker who broke his toe and came to convalesce in Jamaica, a Norwegian slip of a girl who is taking a leap year in her studies, a black girl from Phoenix, and myself. The Phoenix girl is a riot: she came to celebrate her 36th birthday, and her passion is body sculpting, so she has some pictures of herself bursting with muscles while at the same time keeping an hourglass figure. Together with Future we all sat together, shooting the breeze, sharing the camaraderie that forges between free traveling spirits. It was nice!

Jamaica 2016 Day 1. Montego Bay

About six months ago I was flying Southwest and, bored to tears, I opened the magazine the airline provides when I saw that Southwest now had some international destinations, one of which was Montego Bay. Hmm, I thought, “I have never been in Jamaica. How could I possibly miss the other of the Greater Antilles?” So as soon as I got home I let my fingers do the walking and combined my summer visit to my parents with an 11-day exploratory visit to this Pearl of the Caribbean. The trip encompassed flying from  Sacramento to San Antonio, where I landed at 1 am, sleeping in a bench at the San Antonio airport, an hour flight to Houston, and finally a 3-hour flight to Montego Bay, on the north shore of the island (I lay a blanket of silence over the many hours delay caused by bad weather in Texas).

Montego Bay is where Columbus landed in 1494 (second trip to the new world?), but the British took over the island in the 1650’s and hung to it until its independence in 1960. The economy in those early years was supported by African slave labor to work vast sugar cane plantations, and to date most Jamaicans are of African decent. Yes, they speak funny and in a low volume that forces you to lean forward and ask for a repeat, which is very embarrassing, but to judge by my first few hours they are a friendly helpful folk.

A taxi from the airport brought me to my hostel, Togetherness, which is perched on the hills overlooking the suburbs and the waters of Montego Bay. It is really a beautiful villa that the owner, Future, has opened to budget lodgers. A short 20 minute walk brought me down to the shopping center, where I could finally get to an ATM and have dinner at a Burger King (I feel so ashamed, but, honestly, there was not a local eatery nowhere in sight). The uphill walk was a bit more strenuous, and the gentle drizzle reminded me that June is hurricane month in the Caribbean.