Follow by Email

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Of jerk chicken, the blue lagoon, a calypso maypole dance, and Errol Flynn

Our second sojourn was in Long Bay, on the other side of the island, past Kingston on the east coast. We stayed at a small house called Coconut Isle. It was also directly on the beach, in a small village. This house had three bedrooms, certainly adequate for the six of us, and a small living room and porch. It was also in a beautiful location, with the waves practically lapping the porch at high tide. Spoiled by the wonderful expansiveness of Cacona, we weren’t quite as taken with Coconut. But it was wonderful enough! I think we did quite well in picking our two places to stay. Neither was pretentious, neither was expensive, and you couldn’t beat either for the location and views, nor the friendliness of the people.

The owner, Ted, is a Californian who spends several months of the year in Jamaica. He is a teacher, retired from Howard University. I feel bad that he doesn’t usually stay in his own place, if it is rented. But I don’t know that he minds. We spent some time with him a couple of days, sitting on the porch, just shooting the breeze. I had asked about his own heritage, which he said was part Jamaican and part Haitian, where he also spends time. I told him it was a place I would be very interested in visiting. I have often thought of making a combined trip to Haiti and the Dominican, the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola.

The next day, we turned on the TV just about an hour after the earthquake had hit.

None of us had watched any tv the first week. I can’t even remember if we had one at Cacona that worked. The following few days, we were glued to it, as I suppose many people here at home were also. Jamaica sits on the same fault line, and the 1907 earthquake that hit Kingston was on that line, which is named for a location in Jamaica. About half the people we talked to in Jamaica had felt the quake, although we hadn’t. Ted, the house owner, had been contacted by some Americans who wanted to rent the villa when we left, and wanted Ted to locate a charter boat to take them to Haiti to bring supplies. I wondered if they had relatives they were going to try to get out. Our cab driver, more cynical, said it was probably drug traffickers taking advantage of the situation. I am curious and will email Ted to find out what happened.

When we returned home, I looked up the name of the fault line that caused the quake. It goes from a place in Haiti to a river in Jamaica called Plantain Gardens. The river is in the area of the Bath hot springs we stopped at on the way to Kingston. It goes almost directly thru where we were staying in Long Bay.

This tragedy has hit me in a particular way, just because we were so close when it happened, in another poor country with a largely black population. One of the things that impressed me most in our last few days in Jamaica, in Kingston, were the number of collection points for people to contribute money and goods to Haiti. Sometimes it is those who have the least who are most willing to help and donate to those in more dire circumstances than they are.

Well, back to happier things…

Again, we spent several days just on our beach. The weather, however, was cloudy and rainy until the last couple of days, which put a damper, so to speak, on things. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves, going down the beach for drinks and/or dinner at the Chill Out, sitting on the porch, etc.

Port Antonio is the large town nearby, once known as a hang out for the rich and famous, and apparently the first part of the country developed for tourism, in the early 20th century. I wouldn’t have known that without having read it in the guidebook. Now it is a thriving although slightly down the heels town. There are apparently cruise ships that dock there, and tourist shops along the wharf, but we didn’t see any evidence of that, or for that matter, any tourists beside ourselves. There was, however, an internet café for the online deprived (myself included) and a KFC. (which I couldn’t have cared about, but which was a big hit with our younger contingent as well as the locals.)

We took route taxis several times into town, and to some of the other points of interest around the area. These are cars and vans, apparently licensed, who cram as many passengers as possible into their seats and pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along the route. They are pretty cheap $130 Jamaican ( about $1.50 US) for the ½ hour ride into Port Antonio, a bit less for other places along the way. More than once, what looked to us like a fully loaded van stopped, assured us they could fit all 6 of us, and did!
Other times we split up, hoping that we’d all make it to the same place alive and well.

Boston Beach was one of our destinations. It is known for its jerk chicken and other meats(smoked for hours on a barbeque grill covered with corrugated tin.) Everyone, not just locally but everywhere we went in the country, said the the Boston Beach jerk was Jamaica’s best. I have to say I liked the first jerk chicken and pork we had the first day, on the other side of the island, better! Boston Beach is also known for its waves, supposedly the best in the country. There’s a small cove there, with a bunch of Rastas and/or faux Rastas hanging around, smoking and waiting for customers to give lessons to, and a small hand painted sign nailed to a tree, Here is where you learn to surf. Meg and Alanna both took a lesson. (Alanna’s teacher had a joint in his mouth during the entire hour.) They both did well for first timers. Max surfed a bit, Carolina and Loring have decided they don’t like surfing. And I sat on the beach and took pix, including our infamous family “tush “picture. This is a tradition started years ago on a Bahamian beach when Carolina was a toddler. We have continued it over the years, not just on beach trips but in places like Prague, on a park bench, as well.

Also at Boston Beach is an unusual resort called Great Huts. I had originally considered staying there, but came to the conclusion it would be too expensive, especially as our travelling group grew from 4 to 5 and then to 6. It is an enclave of about fifteen huts, tents, and treehouse accommodations built on a cliff overlooking the bay, with steps down to the water. The accommodations are elegantly rustic, in a way like Jake’s in Treasure Beach. The one that we were shown, the only one unoccupied at the moment, was the most spectacular of all, with a living room, bedroom, and Jacuzzi tub all overlooking the ocean. Nothing is closed in, all is open to the elements. The furniture is artistic and locally made. This space, the most expensive, could accommodate 4 and was about $350 nightly. There are others that are more basic and much less expensive.

The owner of the place is an American guy originally from Brooklyn! He is a doctor who had spent much time in Jamaica before building the resort and eventually marrying a Jamaican woman.

The woman who showed us around Great Huts also mentioned that Saturday nights they have dinner and a cultural show, music and dance. Saturday was to be our last night in Long Bay, and we decided to come back, not knowing exactly what to expect as far as performance. I have seen too many hokey cultural shows in a variety of countries. but also some really terrific ones.

We decided to forgo the dinner with American prices, opting instead for more Boston Beach jerk for our last Long Bay dinner. We arrived at Great Huts just a man was announcing that their usual mc was sick and that he was subbing. I was pretty sure he was the owner, and was right. He began to sing, crooning an old Carpenters song, totally at odds with my impression of him from our emails, and from the place itself. I began to have serious doubts about the show to come.

I needn’t have, though. The performers, who came out shortly afterwards, were terrific, probably one of the highlights for me of the entire trip. They began with some drumming, then one man did a balletic solo, again at odds with my expectations, but great. The rest of the performance was traditional Jamaican, including a fantastic Maypole dance, calypso style. I had really wanted to talk to the performers afterwards. They came from a small village just down the road from where we were staying. But our driver was the same person who was transporting them, and he had to bring us back so he could return for them after they’d had their dinner. I’m still curious about them and may try to contact them online.

One more Long Bay expedition: we hired a driver to take us to Reach Falls, about a half hour from our house in the opposite direction from Port Antonio. It was supposed to be beautiful, as well as being the site of a scene from a Tom Cruise movie. We were told you could hike up the falls with a guide, or drive to the top. I chose to drive up, planning to meet the rest of the gang there. Arrived there with our driver, Rolex(everyone in Jamaica seems to have a nickname) and waited, and waited at the scenic falls. They never arrived. Turns out if you go up with a guide you can’t go all the way, because they aren’t official. So we never rende-voud and they never saw the famous falls or experienced the massage of sitting under them. Nor did I, waiting for them. They did have an interesting experience, though, hiking up thru other falls along the way. The most impressive part, apparently, was when their Rasta guide suddenly burst out into song at a point along the way, which they were able to capture on video. And although the guide, himself, was apparently not a necessity, they did seem to have a good time. And the $50 they paid him for the 5 of them, though pricey, was equal to what we would have paid going in thru the gate, as I did. ($10 American per person, $3 for Jamaicans, fair enough.) Quite a few attractions charge what seems to me a high price, including the Bob Marley museum, which cost $20 for non Jamaicans. I go back and forth between feeling ripped off and feeling they deserve whatever they can get from us rich foreigners. It depends on how they use the money, I guess.

Speaking of rip-offs, or anyway misrepresentations, I must recount our experience of the Blue Lagoon. It is promoted as the place where Brooke Shields cavorted, nude, in the film of the same name when she was fourteen. The movie was quite controversial at the time My supposedly trusty Rough Guide described it as so, and I am pretty sure it is widely believed to be the place. We had rented the film before leaving home, but didn’t get around to watching it until we returned. All thru the movie we kept watching out for something recognizable. Nothing was, and in the credits they mentioned an island in Fiji as the site of the filming. At which point Carolina said, “you mean we watched this whole movie for nothing?!”

Our visit to the Blue Lagoon was pleasant enough, though. We rented a boat for $20 and were given about a half hour ride around, seeing a number of impressive villas along the way. The water didn’t look blue or clear or appealing enough, though, for any of us to want to take a swim.

One last thing before leaving Long Bay and environs. I must mention the dashing and decadent actor Errol Flynn, who was largely responsible for making the area well known in the earliest 20th century. He bought an island, built a house, invited all kinds of celebrities, and is still very much associated with the place. His wife, who is in her 90’s, still lives here, on a working ranch just outside of Long Bay. She would have been interesting to meet. I hear the place is for sale for $4 million.

Stay tuned for the last lap of our trip, our two days in Kingston.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sand on the snow

Sprinkling sand on the snow…

I wasn’t trying to melt the snow, exactly, and it wasn’t an obscure ritual, although it felt like it could have been, a melding of cultures and climates.

I returned from Jamaica two days ago, and am slowly unpacking and readjusting. Just noticed the sand collected in the bottom of my daypack, and so shook it out onto the snow on the front porch. This return has been particularly jarring it its contrasts. I always used to have a slightly dislocated feeling upon returning after a time away, but in recent years that feeling had subsided. This time, though, the contrast has been especially unsettling.

Perhaps it is the extremeness of the contrast, although I have certainly experienced that before, particularly in our many visits to the Bahamas years ago. I don’t have an explanation, just an observation.

There is a stark beauty here at home, too, with the snow covered lake and the sharp, crisp air and sunshine today.Nevertheless, I would prefer to still be on a porch on the beach in the tropical sun, listening to the waves! Even the snow aficionados in the family (that’s everyone but me) are sighing with regret that we aren’t still back on the island, even as they make plans to ski next weekend.

It was an unusual trip in that there were six of us, Loring, me, Max, Carolina, plus Max’s girlfriend Meg and Carolina’s friend Alanna. We’d never met Alanna before, (Carolina made her "interview, poor thing, via skype as to how she'd been to Peru and loved it!) and Max and Meg had broken up a couple of weeks before the trip (and then reunited) so I had a certain amount of trepidation about how things would play out. But it couldn’t have been better, all six of us got along very well, enjoyed just about everything we did, most of it all together ( except for the kids’ late night forays down the beach to the beachfront bars – the Chill Out in Long Bay, and Jack Sprat’s in Treasure Beach. I declined the slippery hike up the river to the waterfalls (probably a good idea, although I missed the Rasta guide’s impromptu song along the way.) And Loring and my early mornings on the porch, from sunrise until the kids woke up 4 or 5 hours later, a shame on all the beautifully sunny days.

It was Loring’s turn, to choose a winter beach vacation, after our recent summer travels to Europe, Italy and France, Krakow and Prague. And I needed someplace with some culture to explore. I hadn’t considered Jamaica as a destination before. My major impression had been of upscale resorts with high walls, separated from the mainstream of Jamaican culture. And hedonistic winter and spring breaks. All that does exist, of course. But we never saw it, the closest a couple of busloads from Montego Bay visiting the same waterfuls that we were at.

We never ventured to the northern part of the island, where the major resort areas are, except for our flight into Montego Bay. We went first to Treasure Beach, along the south coast, and then to Long Bay, outside of Port Antonio, on the eastern side of the island. In both locations, we stayed at villas right on the beach, each in a glorious location in a quiet, small community. The villas were the most rustic and most inexpensive I had been able to find. Although both had managers and housekeeper/cooks available, in neither place was the cook a necessity. Most villa ads brag about the staffing, and many about being part of a gated community, neither of which we wanted.

Cacona Villa is a four story (more about that in a minute) villa with more than ample room for all of us to spread out, 4 bedrooms, spectacular views from the porches. Alanna’s first incredulous comment was “did you realize it was g oing to be this nice?!” Mott, the owner, had mentioned that the gate was always kept closed, and the manager, Clint, lived on the property. There was a faded, barely legible sign resting on the gatepost reading “please keep gate closed at all times.”. In fact, the gate was never closed, which didn’t bother us a bit, and didn’t look like it had been in years. We never felt at all concerned about security.

We were greeted by Clint, and his four year old son, Ocean, a little sweetie. Our ears hadn't adjusted to the lyrical Jamaican accent and patois yet, and it took a couple of tries before we undertood his wonderful name.Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of Ocean after our arrival. We met Nadine, (that's Nah-dine, not nay) the cook and housekeeper, the following day, and arranged for her to cook supper for us a couple of nights. She lives about a twenty minute walk away. We told her, after she’d made all the beds, swept, etc, that we didn’t need her to come more than a couple of times to clean(once we’d ascertained that she was getting paid in any case.) She made us wonderful pumpkin soup, curried fish, coconut rum cake.

Villa Cacona is a work in progress, as is much construction in Jamaica. As in many other poor areas we’ve travelled to, people begin construction, and continue it as they have the funds, or sometimes never at all. Wherever you travel in the country, (aside from the wealthy enclaves) you see buildings with rebar sticking up as the beginning of the next level to come. So, at Cacona, there was a lower level with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, where all the kids settled in, a street level with kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom, and best of all, the expansive porch with hammocks and chairs and magnificent views. On the second story, where our bedroom and bathroom were, there was also a walled in but not completed second bedroom plus a large porch. And, there were steps leading up to an additional level, which perhaps will one day have another bedroom, or perhaps just open air roof space.

I kind of liked the incompleteness, it gave the place an air of potential! It isn’t the deluxe villa that most people would prefer, I imagine, and for that reason was priced very reasonably for something directly on the beach. As Mott said in his online ad, “ if the fact that the third floor isn’t complete concerns you, we should talk.”!

By the second day, Carolina and Alanna were already discussing how they could swing coming down next year with a bunch of friends, and they are still talking about it.

There is also an outdoor/ indoor fish pool that runs thru the living room, bathroom, and down to the lowel level and is the home to a turtle and a bunch of little fish. And, an outdoor shower nestled in between the coconut palms! Heaven!

And there’s a separate apt. attached to the house that is rented out to Dennis, a Peace Corps volunteer. For the first few days, we didn’t know his name, and so just called him”Peace Corps Guy.” There are a number of PC folks in Jamaica, but he’s the only one with a room on the beach, and admits he’s got the cushiest location. He’s working with various community groups, on establishing an internet café, among other things, and helping a group of women with a crafts cooperative they’ve begun. I want his job!

My mother tells me her well travelled friends have said to her “ 17 days in Jamaica? What could they do for all that time? They must be terribly bored.”

Well, let’s see, for several days we didn’t leave the beach, perhaps walked down the left to a calmer swimming spot than the one directly in front of the house. Or to the right a ways for supper and drinks at the restaurant down the beach a piece. It was especially nice, and romantic, to walk back up the beach after dinner in the dark with the waves lapping at our toes.

Every day, before and after hanging out on the beach, we sat on the porch in hammocks and lounge chairs and read or played cards or Scrabble. One day, we rented a car and driver for a day long trip up into the mountains, to Jamaica’s oldest rum distillery, Appleton Estates, to a spectacular set of waterfalls to swim and play in, and to a national festival in a small village mountain where the descendants of the runaway slaves still live. Another day, we went by boat along the coast and then up a jungle river where a number of crocodiles live. (we saw one, spotted by Alanna, not by our guide. Good going, Alanna!) There was also a rope swing, used mostly by locals, from which to jump into the river. While we were there, a couple of teenage boys soaped themselves off, climbed the tree, swung from the rope and jumped in. Our gang, other than me, did the same, just sans soap. On the boat trip back, we stopped at the famous Pelican Bar, a building on stilts on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean. Surrounded by a few tourists, a few locals, a large number of pelicans, and several rays, we drank our beers and sodas and relaxed.

One day we walked down the road instead of the beach to check out the few other restaurants, shops, villas and inns in the small community. A couple of times we went to the little” shopping center” (internet café, hair salon, liquor store, two grocery stores without much for groceries, a bit of produce when the truck came in.)

Jake’s Hotel and restaurant are the tourist hub of this tiny community. The accommodations look wonderful, kind of SoHo beach primitive, chic and expensive. I think we were all happier in our own private enclave, with its expansive space, privacy from one another as well as others, kitchen, etc.. I did meet a couple from Manhattan at the fruit stand across the road, who had arrived the night before, as we had. They seemed impressed at how “organized” I was. I’m not sure what that meant other than that I had a daypack to put the fruit in!

Jake’s is owned by Jake and Sally Henzell. I believe he is the son of Perry Henzell, who produced and directed the film “The Harder They Come” with Jimmy Cliff, in 1972Loring and I saw it back then, and again just a few days before we left the States. For some reason we both thought Cliff was dead (had we somehow confused him with Marley?) but he is very much alive and about to be inducted into the R and R Hall of Fame.

Suffice it to say that we weren’t ready to leave when our eight days were over. Bored? Never!