Marley and Mountains

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

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Flag of Jamaica  ,
Monday, February 11, 2008

We said a reluctant goodbye to Mar Blue and Treasure Beach.  Andrea gave us a ride to the BREDS plaza to get a ride to Kingston. It didn't take but a few minutes for us to get a ride in a private car with Winston Senior or "Son" as he is known to his friends.  Son is one of the more talkative drivers we've encountered.  We learn that he is 53, has a son, Tacky, who is also a driver, and that his wife runs a women's centre, a government run facility for young pregnant girls.
He told us that he recently got a loan from the bank to buy his wife a car.  Interest rates on car loans are 15-17 %!   While in the bank, Martin noticed a sign advertising bank loans - "no questions asked" - at 25.5%!
The speed limit on better paved roads in Jamaica is 80 km/hour; on the secondary roads it's 50 km/hr.  Roads tend to be winding and busy, so it takes time and patience to travel long distances. We quickly learned how to stop a taxi Jamaican-style: hold out your arm and flutter your hand.
Despite Son's persistence to find us a hotel in the downtown area, Martin and I insisted that he take us to a place we'd selected in our guide called the Mikuzi, located in New Kingston.  We selected New Kingston because it is a safe part of the city, a residential area where many expats live and where many of the embassies are located.  It is also close to the Bob Marley Museum which was the main reason we had come to Kingston, along with the opportunity to travel into the Blue Mountains.
Many tourists to Jamaica do not venture far from the beach.  Even very few of the regulars who return year after the year have ever been to Kingston - or come here only if they have to.  Kingston (population 600,000), the capital of Jamaica and a major port city, has a bad reputation as a dirty and dangerous place rife with unemployment, poverty and crime.   
The owner of our guesthouse is Valerie, a Jamaican woman who used to be a fashion designer.  In 1984, she semi-retired, bought the Mikuzi (Jamaican patois for "me cozy") and never looked back.  The guesthouse rooms are helter skelter in beautiful gardens; the buildings are a riot of colour and each guest room is uniquely decorated - obviously with a designer's eye. A Rotweiller named Ginger guards the premises; Valerie jokes that the dog is prejudice because she'll attack black people and not white.  We discovered that most of the residences in the area have dogs for protection.  It was a nerve-wracking walk to a restaurant each evening with dogs barking non-stop and lunging at us behind six foot walls.  We counted as many as five dogs in every yard.  
Every morning we joined Valerie for tea in her garden.  She is working on adding a spa to property.  Each time we see her she is busy with a project of some sort. We learned that she has four children, or "3 1/2 boys" as she describes them. (Her daughter was very much a tomboy.  Valerie wanted her to be a model, but she chose to work in the computer industry instead.  She now lives in the US.)  Her youngest boy, 16, works for her, one works for a car rental company and the other is a paints houses. 
The first point of interest for us is the Bob Marley Museum located just blocks from the Mikuzi at 56 Hope Road, Bob's residence from 1975 until his death.  Before traveling to Jamaica I read his biography called Catch a Fire from which I learned about Marley's life and life in Jamaica. 
Bob Marley was born at Nine Miles in St. Ann Parish on the north coast of Jamaica in 1945.  He was the son of a British sea captain and a Jamaican woman.  Bob was a fitness fanatic (played football, i.e., soccer) and a vegan who only ate Ital (ee-tal) food (no salt, or meat - only fruit, vegetables, bread and some types of fish).   Although raised as a black Jamaican, he saw himself as half black and half white.  
Bob Marley grew up in the gritty Trench Town in Kingston, an area renowned for its poverty and apathy.  After achieving success, he purchased the property on Hope Road from his British manager, Chris Blackwell.  His wife, Rita Marley, was one of the backup singers for his band, the Wailers.  Upon his death from cancer in 1981, Rita Marley established the Bob Marley Foundation which she runs with their children and Bob's brothers and sisters.
Bob was also a Rastafarian, a religion that has its roots in the teachings of fellow Jamaican, Marcus Garvey.  Rastafarians are followers of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, whose given name is Ras Tafari Makonnen.  Rastafarians believe that Selassie is a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba.  The first tenet of Rastafari is the acceptance of Haile Selassie as the second coming of God, or "Jah".  True Rastafarians follow a strict Ital diet, smoke ganja or "herb" as a religious sacrament, wear dreadlocks and a tam (usually in the Rastafarian colours of red, green and yellow - the colours of the Ethiopian flag), believe in having many children (Bob had 12) and oppose surgery or invasion of the body of any kind.  It was this aversion to surgery that may have contributed to Bob's untimely death.  His cancer is believe to have started in his big toe, the result of a soccer injury.  The doctor wanted to amputate his toe to stave off the infection, but Bob would have none of it.
The Bob Marley Museum is decorated with memorabilia from Bob's life.  Walls are plastered with his gold, platinum and diamond records, album covers, newspaper articles and magazine covers, such as Rolling Stone and Soul.  He has received numerous awards, including being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, winning a Grammy Lifetime Award and receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  We were very impressed with the young female guides, all of who were very knowledgeable about Bob Marley and could sing his songs like no one's business!  (We were all coaxed into singing "One Love" - voted song of the millennium - at one point in the tour).  A 20 minute theatre presentation providing more insights into Bob Marley's philosophy on life concludes the tour.  

The museum is inspiration which portrays Bob Marley as a messenger of peace, hope and love.  His views were not help by all Jamaicans, however, and his life was threatened more than once.  During the tour, the guide points out bullet holes in the back of house where he was attacked on one occasion.  After that particular attempt on his life, Bob went into hiding for two years, until 1978's One Love concert where he had the leaders of the opposing Jamaican political parties come on stage and shake hands.  This is considered a monumental event in Jamaican history.

(Despite the popularity of Rastafarianism, most Jamaicans are Anglicans.  Like so many places populated by former African slaves, churches often combine African and European religious traditions and many Jamaicans believe in withcraft, evil spirits or "obeah" and ghosts or "duppies".)

We also took in the grounds of nearby Devon House, built in 1881 by Jamaica's first black millionaire, and the National Art Gallery in seedy downtown Kingston. The gallery houses an excellent collection of Jamaican artwork from the 1920s to present day. While downtown, we took a short walk along the harbour front to the craft market which was teeming with people selling cheap souvenirs. Needless to say, it wasn't long before we headed back to New Kingston.  We were drawn to Devon House a couple of times because the shops on the grounds sold delicious patties and ice cream.
Our second day in the Kingston area was spent touring the Blue Mountains with Dalwin (aka Skidell), Son's brother-in-law, as our driver.  Though an easy day trip from Kingston, the Blue Mountains is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  The mountains are named for the mist that colour them from a distance and their craggy slopes form an unbroken, undulating spine across Jamaica's easternmost parishes. As we wove our way through the mountains, the serenity of the countryside was instantly calming.  The air was fresh and cool; the vegetation was thick, wild and oh, so green.  Much of this area is uninhabited and/or inaccessible by road.

Dalwin (we found it hard to call him Skidell, knowing the connotation of the word) was familiar with this area because he had lived on the edge of the mountains in a little place called Irish Town for about 10 years. He drove into Kingston each day, but liked driving home to spend the evenings in the coolness of the mountains.  (On our departure from the Blue Mountains, Dalwin stopped to cut a piece bamboo.  He raises white doves  - has about 16 and was going to used the bamboo to make a feeding tray.)

The Blue Mountains, John Crow Mountains and other rugged areas of Jamaica were home to the freed/escaped slaves known as the Maroons, a term derived from the Spanish word cimarrones meaning "wild" or "untamed".  The Maroons became a deterrent to colonists wanting to settle in more remote areas.  The British brought in troups to gain control, but with the difficult and extremely confusing terrian, were easily outmanoeuvred by the skilled guerilla tactics of the Maroons.  Eventually, a treaty was signed between the two parties.  It is possible to visit Maroon settlements, but there are particular protocols in doing so.

Our first stop was Strawberry Hill, once a coffee plantation, now owned by Chris Blackwell and run as an upscale hotel for the rich and famous.  Located on a mountaintop overlooking Kingston, it is strikingly unpretentious and has a traditional Jamaican feel about it. The surrounding gardens are beautifully landscaped and the buildings seem somehow to blend right into the landscape.  Strawberry Hill is renowned for its food; our guide recommended that the $53 per person Sunday brunch is worth every penny.

Further up the road, we stopped at Holywell Recreational Park where we walked the short Oatley Mountain Trail, a 2 mile, 40-minute circuitous trek through the jungle dotted with air ferns and orchids. This is the off-season and the park was remarkably quiet.  We saw very few other tourists, only a group of young people who had been camping in the area over the weekend.

We also visited a coffee farm, The Tavern Coffee Estate, perched on the side of a mountain.  We were greeted by the raucous barking of a couple of large, forbidding dogs, who calmed down once the owner appeared.  The owner reluctantly allowed us in (they prefer if you call ahead and we hadn't).  Her family purchased the plantation as a summer home in 1968, but now that her husband, an accountant, has retired, they live there year round.  From their house we could see the coffee bushes that cover the vast hillsides.

We were shown the grinding equipment and how the coffee is graded.  Harvest takes place from May through July.  Once the beans are picked, the fruit is separated from the bean, the hulls are removed and the beans are roasted.  They had several types of coffee available for sale, their specialty being "peabody".  We were served samples of the coffee (which I, not being a coffee drinker, foisted on Martin who didn't mind in the least) took a look at a few photos, ate a few cookies and were off.   As we felt we had intruded, we didn't stay long.  Hopefully, the fact we bought a few pounds of coffee placated her somewhat.  Another couple who had arrived at the coffee plantation just before we did and had called ahead to arrange for a visit certainly appeared to receive a warmer welcome than we had.

Our last evening was spent visiting with Valerie, relaxing in the calm atmosphere of the Mikuzi.   
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