A lush, green island swimming in the clear, blue seas of the Caribbean, Jamaica is populated mostly by black descendants of slaves from the British colonial period. Most of its inhabitants live along the coast. Up until 35 years ago, the living there was very easy. Fish abounded in the warm, southern waters, and tropical fruit practically fell from the trees. In the pleasant tropical climate, a simple shack provided the only shelter necessary. A goat in the backyard served as garden-trimmer, source of milk and, eventually, meat. Of course, not everyone lived so poorly, but the environment itself provided a safety net.
Today, Jamaica is a much different place. The land around the coast has been developed, mostly for foreign tourists. As a result there's a lot less space around to squat, and a lot less tropical bounty to harvest. Meanwhile, due to the high birthrate, the population has increased considerably. The waters have been fished out because of narrow-seined nets which catch small, immature fish, as well as the large ones.
Jamaica is a very poor, third world country. Poorer than you believed could exist a short plane hop away from the US (unless you have ever crossed the border from the US into Mexico) . Its major industries are bauxite mining (ore used to make aluminum) , tourism, and agriculture--a very high percentage of Jamaicans are unemployed.
Two years ago (HT March '87) John Holmstrom described pricey, security-conscious resort areas which feature compounds that are off-limits to non-guests. Jamaicans who can afford the prices are welcome, but there are very few who can. For the most part, Jamaicans congregate on the public beaches and in the streets.
We stayed at the Rock House, one of the first compounds built in Negril. Each bungalow overlooked its own private cove. Steps or a walkway led down to the water, for snorkeling, rubber rafting, or just plain swimming in the salty warm waters which offered extreme buoyancy. The view from the hotel was wonderful, the sounds peaceful and tropical, the grounds carefully manicured.
Immediately outside the compound, along the road, there stood a row of shacks, where vendors sold souvenirs such as wooden carvings , t-shirts, refreshments, snacks. Some in a low voice whispered "ganja." We were also accosted by people offering their services--taxis and other things. But nobody begged. Desperate in their need for the smallest change, they could smell the wealth of the
Though poor. they were proud. There was no tension, all they wanted was a chance to make a living, to be able to work. If they could not find a job, they made their own, vending to the rich. Not stealing, not begging, but trying to do business with them.
At first we thought the constant barrage annoying, that these people were hustlers. But later on in the trip, in Ocho Rios, we found it very inconvenient when we needed a taxi and none was there to greet us. While it is true that foreigners pay more,
they get a different grade of service. When we took a taxi, it cost us J 10, about $2. Jamaicans could take the same ride for J2. But we got express service, no stops. When the same taxi serviced Jamaicans, it functioned more like a shuttle, letting passengers on and off along the route.
Although most of the people we met were other foreigners, a few Jamaicans quickly became "friends of convenience." We had discussions and heard lots of different points of view, but all the drinks were on us.
The Xtabi, where Steve Hager and the crew stayed, was a ten-minute walk down the road. It also overlooked the cliffs with a nice tropical lounge. The romantic restaurant was open to the stars and offered a warm sea breeze that caressed our unaccustomed temperate-zone bodies.
One afternoon, the lounge's patrons were entertained by a Jamaican kid who dove off the high cliffs into the water for large Jamaican bills, J20 at a time. We ate breakfast at Cool Junior's, one of the small stands
lining the road between the Rock House and Xtabi. My friend and I shared a huge mango and a large fruit salad. The fruit was juicy, sweet, and flavorful. Eating at Cool Junior's was truly going native.
After briefly consulting the HIGH TIMES crew, we made arrangements for a dinner at this informal eatery the following night. Served family style, we ate the authentic local meal of our Jamaica trip. Starting off with a fruit salad appetizer, followed by rice and whole black beans in coconut milk, lettuce and tomato salad, cole slaw seasoned with black pepper, mashed pumpkin (which tastes like a mashed winter squash,
delicious) , the main course featured grilled small whitefish, washed down with Red Stripe Beer or a delicious homemade fruit punch. Oh yes, ganja cornbread was included. All for $14 a person.
Another fellow who worked at the stands offered to show me his garden not far from town. We took a taxi outside the city and then walked a half hour along a
road, a trail, and then just fields. The garden consisted of two small fields, each about 30' x 40'. Small Jamaican variety ganja plants were planted in little groups throughout the garden. They were typical Jamaican plants: sativas of medium potency. My host used strip and burn to clear the field. This was his third year at the location, and the fragile tropical soil had quickly eroded.
While temperate-zone ecosystems hold most of the nutrients in the soil, from which the plants draw and eventually contribute, tropical ecosystems hold most of the nutrients vertically, in the growing matter. The topsoil level is thin and fragile. As soon as a plant dies, the nutrients wash down to the soil, where they are quickly taken up and put to work by other plants. Strip and burn destroys the whole ecosystem. Within a year the topsoil washes away, leaving only the thin texture subsoil, to erode further as gullies develop. Growers use no terracing to conserve the soil, or fertilizers or any other conservation practices. The results are small plants with stunted buds which suffer from lack of nutrients.
Looking for more action, my friend and I went to the tourist board. We were offered a tour of the Rhodes plantation, a 600-acre tract a half hour ride from the beach. Envisioned as a working farm and entertainment area, the plantation already operates as a chicken ranch. The 30,000 chickens, housed in a modern poultry building supply a fair proportion of the fowl served in Jamaica's finer eateries. Fish ponds are stocked with tilapia, a fish which breed and mature rapidly. The owner plans eventually to use the ponds for sport-fishing. A restaurant to cook the catch is also in the blueprints. The plantation farm is planted with coconuts, squash and pumpkin. Horses have been acquired for riding. A dirt-bike trail and cottages are also planned.
On the way to the plantation, we spoke with our driver about schools and education. The schools are free, however, students must buy school uniforms, books, lunch, and transportation. Most families are large and cannot afford to send all the kids to school, so some of them get no education at all.Seeing the country and hearing this has to make you angry. The US supplies Jamaica with drug eradication funds for helicopters, police sweeps and paraquat, while the kids go barefoot without educational opportunities.
We left Negril a little early and travelled to Ocho Rios, to visit some botanical gardens and to visit Jamaica's favorite tourist attraction, Dunn's River Falls. Rather than driving for hours to get there, we took a small Jamaican Airlines plane across the island. The trip was well worth the extra money. Both the coast and inland areas were beautiful from the air.
Dunn's River Falls consists of a series of small falls which cascade over smooth, rounded rocks and are very climbable. And that's what most people do, with the help of a guide. The park is popular for Jamaicans and tourists alike. The ascent, not hard at all, takes about 30 minutes and is a lot of fun.
During our climb, my friend dropped her sunglasses, which were swept away into the water. The guide dove into the depths. A few minutes later he retrieved them. Simply amazing.