Exploring Inland

Trip Start Jan 29, 2008
Trip End Feb 15, 2008

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Flag of Jamaica  ,
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

After a breakfast of pancakes at a restaurant down the street, Martin and I headed off with our packs and were quickly rounded up by a taxi driver who agreed to drive us to Black River for $50 US.  His name was John, aka "Slowly".  Everyone here has a given name and a nickname.  You're just as likely to be told one as the other.
John or "Slowly" had worked for six or seven years in the sugar cane fields, but it was hard work and it didn't pay well, so he decided to try driving cab instead.  He has been a taxi driver for about 18 years now.  Our route to Black River was along the south coast.  At Belmont, we stopped long enough to take a picture of the sign at Peter Tosh's birthplace.  Peter Tosh was one of the original band members of Bob Marley and the Wailers.  He was shot and killed during a robbery/drug deal gone bad in 1987.
The hotel we chose in Black River was Ashton Great House, located just outside town, with a picturesque hillside setting.  It was built in the 1600s by an English sea captain.  As with most great houses in Jamaica, it was built on a hill to communicate with ships at sea via Morse Code and to keep an eye on the slaves.  It is a huge old house decorated with antique furniture.  The stairway was imported from England and the creaky wood floors are made from orange wood.
The manager of the establishment was Mrs. Verna Binns.  She was manager, host, cleaning supervisor and cook all rolled into one.  She also arranged for a local driver, Patrick, aka "Sonics", to tour us around the area.  While at Ashton, we were to experience many of Mrs. Binns' homemade specialties: "rung dun" (fish in coconut milk),"food" (yam, potato and plantain), "escovitch fish" cooked in a spicy sauce and "festival" which were similar to corn fritters.
On our first day, we spent the afternoon in Black River.  It was our introduction to a chain called "Juicy Patties", which served fast food Jamaican-style.  Patties are meat pies stuffed with meat, seafood, chicken or vegetables.  They were cheap, delicious soul food - and we indulged at Juicy Patties or other patty places many times during our travels in Jamaica.
Black River's wealth was derived from trade in logwood, used to produce black and dark blue dyes for the textiles industry.  With the introduction of synthetic dyes, the market for logwood has since disappeared.  The town is renowned for its beautiful, old wooden buildings with gorgeous colonnaded verandahs and gingerbread trim.built during Black River's heyday.  We checked out the Invercauld Hotel and the Waterloo Guesthouse, the first electrified dwelling in Jamaica.  Along the waterfront is a rusty old ship, half sunk in the water; local farmers sell their fruit and vegetables on the beach.  It was nice not to get hassled like Negril, but, on the other hand, people were none too friendly either.
We did have some fun on the way back to the guesthouse with four little girls on their way home from school who rode in the same taxi van as Martin and I.  Children wear school uniforms here.  The boys' are invariably some shade of brown, but the girls vary from school to school, ranging from white blouses with bright blue or navy jumpers to red and white check blouses with red skirts.  We gave them each a balloon and I showed them pictures of snowy Saskatchewan on my camera.  Wary of strangers, they were rendered speechless.   

The next morning, Sonics arrived early for our tour of the area.  Our first stop was the Appleton Rum Factory which was founded in 1645.  The factory employs about 560 people and they farm about 6,000 acres of sugar cane.  The whole place smells sweet, like sugar and molasses.
On the rum factory tour we met a young fellow from England who had inherited some money and had decided to take a whirlwind trip to Jamaica for a couple of days, then was on to New York for a few more days.  He ran a bar in London, so was keenly interested in the rum-making process.  He'd taken a taxi straight from Montego Bay airport when he landed.  I expect he spent most of his holiday jet-lagged and bleary-eyed.
Rum is made from molasses, sugar cane and water.  Sugar is squeezed from the cane; what remains is called "bopus" and is used as fuel for heating the sugar and molasses, or sometimes the residue is used for making chipboard.  With today's methods, it is possible to get about 90% of the sugar out of the cane.  The sugar and molasses are mixed and heated to produce "wet sugar".  The sugar portion is separated out and sold as brown sugar, while the molasses part is fermented, then distilled for anywhere from three to 30 years to produce rum.  There is one aging house on site at Appleton; the rest of the rum is transported by truck to aging houses in Kingston.
Rum is aged in white oak barrels that breathe. In fact, about 30% of the rum is lost to evaporation in any one barrel in a year, so the barrels must be continually mixed with other barrels to ensure they don't dry up.  During this process, "notes" are added to give the run particular flavours.  The more aged rum is, the darker it is.  A taste-testing following out tour enabled us to discern the difference in the various ages of rum.  A number of rum liqueurs were also available to taste and purchase.
Our second stop was YS Falls.  From the entrance gates, a "jitney" (covered wagon pulled by a tractor) took us through pastures where cattle grazed (along with egrets who eat the insects the cattle stir up), to the falls.  YS Falls is a series of falls that includes several swimming holes, rope swings and a zip line from the top falls to the bottom which you can try for an additional $30.  Martin and I walked to the top of the falls and took turns swimming to the waterfall, walking behind and diving in.  It was a nice way to cool off.  Meanwhile, at the falls entrance, Sonics had made himself comfortable in our absence.  We returned to find him fast asleep, with his shoes off and his bare feet hanging out of the window.
Lunch was a meal of peppered shrimp at Middle Quarters which we shared with Sonics.  They were spicy and oh so yummy.  Not unexpectedly, the small ones are the best.  Our travels also took us through Bamboo Avenue where the bamboo has grown on either side of the road to create a pretty archway.
Our last adventure of the day was a trip down the Black River by boat.  We learned that the Black River appears black because of the peat moss at the bottom.  The river is 44 km long and is home to many crocodiles, all of whom have been named by the local tour boat operators.  We saw Terry and Jerry, but George, Charlie and Patricia were no where to be found.  The Black River also attracts a lot of birdlife, including snowy egrets, lesser blue herons, great blue herons and great white herons.  Our boat tour took us through the mangroves (called Mangrove Avenue) water hyacinth and sawgrass, a plant that removes salt from the water.
On the road, Sonics pointed out a cricket pitch to us.  Cricket is a very popular game in Jamaica.  We talked about his life and his two sons, one of whom is a cab driver in  Montego Bay, the other a fisherman.  Sonics' car is his pride and joy; "Sonics" appears in bold lettering across the top of the windshield.
We were the only guests staying at Ashton Great House, save for one other couple the first evening.  The second day we were there, we met a couple of Jamaican origin from Toronto who were visiting family and friends in the area (including Mrs. Binns) and looking at property.  They seemed impressed that we weren't just doing the all-inclusive thing.
We spent the remainder of the day on the balcony overlooking the farmland, taking photos of herds of roving goats and watching the ocean.  A delicious supper of garlic shrimp and beef, cooked by our cum-manager, cum-host, cum-chef, Mrs. Binns, made our stay at Ashton complete.
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