I don’t remember exactly when we started traveling to Jamaica, but it’s been well over ten years. We go to the same place every year and do the same things: we read books, solve crossword puzzles, eat home-cooked Jamaican food, and laze by the Caribbean water, even bluer than my bride’s eyes. Boring? Maybe, to many – some of them including friends and even blood relatives. But not to us. Whenever we have time, we try to take two vacations a year. One of them is educational, but our Jamaica trip is always vegetational.
I’ve especially enjoyed reading longer books there, since I can spend huge chunks of uninterrupted time plowing through them. I read CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson in Ja; Edmund Morris’s fascinating “memoir” of Ronald Reagan, DUTCH; the entire DARK TOWER cycle by Stephen King; etc. I also delight in bringing down with me “beach reads,” usually disposable novels (Judith Krantz, Dan Brown, any number of wannabe horror or thriller writers), and leaving them there for the next guests. (Don’t get me wrong: I leave good books there too, including all the DARK TOWER paperbacks.) The one and only disadvantage to owning a Kindle (inaugurated on our 2008 trip) is that, when the wind is blowing sand around on the beach, Amazon’s device is a grain collector. It didn’t happen this year, and Linda read THE HELP on the beach with no problem, but I always take some paper down, just in case.
We stay at Jamahome, a villa at Silver Sands, near Duncans in Trelawny Parish on Jamaica’s north shore, about halfway between Montego Bay, where the airport is, and Ocho Rios, where most of the cruise ships dock. I guess you could say Silver Sands is a “gated community,” but it’s a one-plank railroad-style gate that the guard raises by hand as s/he waves you through. We come just before the high season starts, so it’s nice and thinly populated, just the way we like it.
We have the house to ourselves. Claudette Graham, our hostess, housekeeper and chef (and, by now, close personal friend) comes in at 8:30 or so, makes us a hearty breakfast, and scoots us off to the white-sand beach (thus the name of the community), a five-minute walk. About one or two, we repair back home for “tea” (for me, it’s always a Red Stripe, the sweet, delicious Jamaican lager) and crustless sandwich quarters. After we’ve showered away most of the day’s sand granules, our hostess leaves us long before dark, with dinner warming in the oven. It’s prepared for us to serve family-style, by an off-the-scale island cook: spicy jerk chicken or snapper, lobster caught that very morning, sometimes meat in the form of balls, loaf or steaks. If we’re lucky, for breakfast we have ackee (a tree-borne fruit which looks and chews more like hard-scrambled eggs) with bacon, onions and peppers, but we also might have unbelievably good banana pancakes, or French toast, cheese omelets, etc. There are always veggies and fruit for dietetic balance. Back home, we’ve tried to replicate “jerk” sauce and the ping-pong-ball-sized rolls of “johnnycake” that go along with ackee. We each congratulated the other for trying – me with the rolls, Linda with the jerk chicken – and never, never attempted it again. The precise mix of spices, the exact way you prepare the johnnycake, is something you pass down from generation to generation. We can only consume and applaud. We’ve turned up our noses only once, at a coveted island delicacy: curried goat. We asked Erron, Claudette’s husband, what her very best dish was, and he answered without hesitation, but that night we decided you have to be Jamaican to love curried goat.
At the house, we sit in a screened-in sunroom that looks out upon the ocean, just past a glorious tree which our hostess calls “sea cotton.” In the morning (I’m usually the earlier riser), I can usually see a cruise ship in the distance heading east to dock at Ocho, and, when day is done, a well-lit one (in all senses of the word) sailing back west. These toy ships — from experience, I know how immense they really are — seem to take forever to cross the perimeter. Watching one at night, usually nursing a cigar outside on the patio, I remind myself that two types of vision casually illustrate how insignificant we self-absorbed humans really are: some eyes are trained on the ocean, others study the stars. From my position, I can see them both. Oceanographers and astronomers must share an occasional feeling of tininess.
We’re basically homebodies; it’s pathetic. One year we got Erron to drive us to the spectacular Duns River Falls, and that was fun. But it’s hard to move us once we get settled in. Every summer, when we start fantasizing about the upcoming trip, we say, “This year, we’re going to Bob Marley’s house!” But we never do. There are restaurants around, too, but why?
Jamaica became a British colony in the mid-17th century (it was seized from the Spaniards at gunpoint), and only gained full independence in 1962. But three centuries of colonial influence have left their mark. You drive on the left side of the road. Cricket is universally popular (the “Windies,” taken from all over the Caribbean, are one of the world’s best teams). Every letter to the editor of Kingston’s daily Gleaner begins, “The EDITOR, Sir:” and ends, “I am, etc.” But what strikes you again and again is that Jamaican home-style (as opposed to hotel) living feels like the U.S. in the Forties or Fifties, that time to which the Christian right keeps wanting to turn back the clock.
Jamaicans are not wealthy in the per capita calculation, but neither are they stupid or indolent. Their largest industry is tourism, and they are gracious and gentle hosts. There are more English-speaking people in Jamaica than anywhere else in North America except the U.S. and Canada, and when they are addressing guests, they use that mellifluous Caribbean lilt on the Queen’s English. But when they’re talking to each other, they speak in an English hybrid you can’t understand, called “patwa,” Ja for patois. You’d recognize some of the conventions if you’ve ever read a reggae lyric, but they are going a mile a minute and it’s simply unintelligible to off-island ears. I rode with Erron into Falmouth one day to help him tote a repaired television set back to the house, and I heard him talk with friends, the repairman, and people on the street. I have no idea what anybody said – for all I know, they were riffing on me.
When we first visited Jamaica, the van journey from MoBay was tooth-rattling: about 45 kilometers over a pockmarked dirt road that forced us to creep through Falmouth’s town center. But very gradually, over many years, a paved highway was carved and completed. Now the trip is at least 25% shorter, but it makes you much sadder.
Each year, the road out from the airport has two or three new, massive luxury resort complexes under construction. This one’s being built by Spaniards. That one by the Japanese. And so on. It won’t be long before the entire strip looks like Cancun, or like Negril on the western shore – one resort hotel after another. I’m told that the hotels tend to serve comfort food to their own countrymen: forget the curried goat. This has nothing to do with our continuing experience at Jamahome — it’s only an outsider’s observation — but one year we were stuck overnight in MoBay by a huge rainstorm that grounded all planes. At the hotel where the airline put us up, the buffet breakfast included “ackee,” but it bore very little resemblance to Claudette’s dish, and our disappointment bordered on depression.
Not all change is bad. When we first started going, we had to ask Claudette to call the phone company for a line back to the States. Now our cell phones work fine, and there’s a wireless router in the villa, so we can email to our hearts’ content on a broadband connection. But something is gradually disappearing. Last year, a greedy developer tried to annex a popular public beach used by the locals up in the hills. They got some pro bono legal counsel, sued, and won. Yes, tourism brings sorely needed jobs and tax revenues, but this was their beach! I wonder how much longer they can hold out.
Falmouth itself is being built up near the shore: there’s a development called “New Falmouth,” and that pretty much tells the tale. A couple of years ago, they unveiled the Trelawny Multi-Purpose Stadium, with the most beautiful cricket pitch I’d ever seen (Erron stopped by on the way in to let us look at the stadium). It was one of the venues when the West Indies hosted the 2007 Cricket World Cup. And now we learn that Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has elected, starting next year, to dock at Falmouth instead of Ocho. It’s a far cry from rumbling through town for a TV set, and maybe even an improvement, but Falmouth – and the whole of Trelawny Parish — will never be the same.
I realize I have a lot of nerve railing about some sainted old Jamaica that I never actually knew, since I’m one of those tourists myself. But I can still conjure up a wisp of nostalgia for that Fifties sense of propriety and grace that makes our quiet community so charming and restful. I mean, the rooms in the villa look like my grandma’s house, storm lanterns and all, but I’m nevertheless tapping away at Google News. I’m part of the change, and I don’t always like it. Is this how you become a conservative?