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Jamaica--Beyond the Masses
Thomas R. Fletcher
We've all heard of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Most are familiar with Negril, but what about Port Antonio? Port Antonio lies on Jamaica's Northeast coast, squeezed against the blue Caribbean Sea by the Blue Mountains. The town isn't exactly in a convenient location--and that is the point.
Jamaica is well known for its all-inclusive resorts--and there are many advantages to all-inclusive travel. However, the all-inclusive Jamaica is not the real Jamaica, but the Jamaica of fantasy. All-inclusives are a bit like visiting a place without ever leaving the US--the people, the performances--all a microcosm of the US culture and its expectations. Perhaps that is what a certain segment of the public wants, i.e., to be able to say they have visited an exotic location without actually having the inconvenience of truly encountering the people and the culture along the way. Does that qualify as real travel? A local guide let me in on his point of view on one resort.
"The resort stays full when other resorts aren't. As a people, we don't agree with the lifestyle, but it makes the money. We refer to it as the 'human zoo.'"
He was speaking of a certain all-inclusive that promotes the idea that the chief goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure--a place where "naked twister" is a game of choice. Another thing about some all-inclusives, tipping is not permitted. You may think, "great," but how great is it to be supporting a family on $700 Jamaican a week (the equivalent of about US $20)?
Columbus called the island "Santiago" when he landed there in 1494. The Native American Arawak tribe living there at the time called the island "Xaymaca," or "Jamaica." The name has nothing to do with "Jah," the Rastafarian name for God, or "land of Jah," as a new Rastafarian acquaintance vehemently insisted. The name means "land of wood and water." Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean. She is a mountainous island, draped with luxuriant vegetation and fringed with lovely beaches. Here one finds one of the highest peaks in the West Indies, Blue Mountain, which tops out at 7,402 feet high. The population is mostly of African descent. The official language is English, but what one hears is Jamaican Creole: English with a few West African words thrown in and filtered through several centuries of island living. Jamaica has much to offer the adventurous traveler willing to break the all-inclusive mold and venture out into other areas of the island, such as Port Antonio.
The easiest way to Port Antonio is by flying into Kingston, then making the three-hour drive north. Rental cars are available in Jamaica; they are expensive, an insurance bond must be posted, and the roads are bad. It is much easier to hire a taxi or go with a tour company. Let someone else dodge the potholes and oncoming traffic. The road from Kingston is narrow and twisting, gouged into the side of the mountains. Along the way I took notice of a particular mountain, well, half a mountain.
"Cut away for the limestone and sent to the States for the production of gypsum board," our driver informed me, when he noticed me staring, mouth agape. The mining products of Gypsum and Bauxite account for 60 percent of the island's exports. Agriculture and tourism are the other two major players in the economy.
Musical roots run deep in Jamaica, dating back to the time when the slaves used drums as a means of communication, and percussion instruments form the base element of Jamaica's music today. Jamaica, as most people know is the home of Reggae. So I wasn't surprised to see a wall of speakers set up alongside the highway in a small village we passed through. I was surprised by what I heard. Expecting to hear Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff, instead it was Shania Twain belting out her latest hit.
By the time we made it to Port Antonio, I was ready for some Jamaican Jerk. You should know; Jamaican Jerk isn't that guy in the Kingston airport that bumped into you, sending your bags flying, walking away without so much as an "excuse me." Jerk is a term used for the island's spicy marinate used on various meats. The concoction consists of scallion, thyme, pimento seeds, nutmeg, and peppers--and it seems each cook has his or her own "special" jerk sauce, all guaranteed to fire up your taste buds.
First stop was the Blue Lagoon for some dinner. Unable to decide upon either the jerk chicken, pork, or fish, I decided to sample all three. The restaurant borders the "Blue Hole," a popular area attraction, deep blue in color because of its great depth. The hole of water is estimated to be 200 feet deep--though some locals insist it is "bottomless."
Port Antonio has a population of just over 13,000 residents. It is easy to see why actor Errol Flynn and his associates enjoyed resorting to the area. The town's twin harbors, East and West Harbor, separated by Navy Island are just the beginning of the area's natural beauty. The Rio Grande River and the river valley, lying within the Blue Mountain range, are among the region's natural assets.
Rafting the Rio Grande is a popular activity, but if you have thoughts of surging down a narrow canyon, bouncing around in a rubber raft, facing Class V rapids--delete those thoughts. The rafts of the Rio Grande are long bamboo poles lashed together with a seat for two near the rear and a guide standing at the front using a long bamboo pole to push the raft along this gently flowing river. Rafting the Rio Grande is more romance than high adventure.
Another option is to take a hike back in the valley with Valley Hikes. This nonprofit organization was formed to promote eco-cultural tourism in the Port Antonio region. The company offers hikes that range from two hours to ten days of hiking and tent camping back in the mountains. I joined a short half day hike up the Rio Grande Valley to Scatter Waterfalls and Foxes Caves. The trip was led by a Maroon herbalist, who explained the many medicinal uses of plants we were walking over, assuming they were useless weeds.
The Maroons are descendants of escaped African slaves. The Spanish held slaves and maintained control of the island from the time of Columbus until the English invasion of 1655. Many slaves saw the invasion as the break they were looking for, and headed for the hills. There they learned to live off the land and became a thorn in the side of the new occupying force. They would raid the British, freeing more slaves to join them. The English slaves could hear the drums of the Maroons in the mountains and they knew if they escaped their bonds they had a place to go. Though the English tried, they could never dominate the Maroons. The Maroons made the most of their natural fortress of mountains, evading the English for decades. Today's Maroons have their own government (first recognized by England in the treaty of 1739), and they still live close to the land.
The Blue Mountain Downhill Bike Tour is a good way to spend a day. No over-exertion here. After a van ride I thought would never end, up the narrow, writhing road; we were each fitted with a beach cruiser bicycle. Then we were off on our 18 mile-long coast down the mountain, passing through thick vegetation overhanging the road, past banana groves, past coffee plantations--growing the famed Blue Mountain Coffee--stopping often to take in panoramic views that stretch for miles.
Founded in 1729, Port Antonio was at the heart of Jamaica's original tourism industry, today it is a bit off the tourist trail. Here one gets a feel for the culture, the people, and the natural attributes of the real Jamaica. One thing is sure. You won't be constantly bumping elbows with other tourists.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher