Jamaica in 2012

11 Aug

jamaica

Map of Jamaica

One love, One heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (One Love)
Hear the children crying (One Heart)

The above song by Bob Marley  coupled with eye-catching and head-turning pictures of white-sand, blue water, lush green landscape were enough to allure me to Jamaica.

I want to see as much of the world as I can before age and health discourage my enthusiasm. Mine is a no frills, do-it-myself approach. I research places to stay and plan a basic itinerary before departure then work out daily details as I go, using, as much as possible, public transport and my own two feet for sightseeing.

I landed at Norman Manley Airport, Kingston on 3rd July 2012.  Immigration formalities were routine except that the officer asked me to show him my return plan.  When I pointed out to the return ticket, he said, “This is as far as Miami, USA. I want to see confirmed booking to your country.” This seemed irrelevant rather frivolous but I have learned from experience not to mess with them. So I fetched out my Karachi-Miami-Karachi itinerary and showed him. He stamped my passport without any further fuss. Custom formalities were brief and I was out of the terminal in about 20 minutes.  Many taxi drivers approached me and asked for US$30 to the town. This seemed outrageous as the city was hardly 15 km away. What they think? Am I a walking dollar-sign? But there was no other way like airport bus or rail and they were all ‘chips from the same block’. So I paid that much to go a hotel booked on the Internet with a fancy name – Chelsea Hotel, New Kingston.

After a good rest, I was ready to explore the neighborhood. My new Caterpillar shoes were prompting me to show up. Fortunately, the Chelsea Hotel was located in New Kingston which was considered safe even for a new comer like me. Turning right, I came on the Half-Way-Tree Road which looked important as it was surrounded by schools, offices, stores, banks and many churches especially an imposing St. Andrew Church. Most Jamaicans are Christian of Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists sects.  The country is said to have highest number of churches per capita in the world.

I continued my walk till I reached to end of the road. I saw an old clock atop a tower and asked a passerby about its background. He said in crisp English “It was built in 1913 as a memorial to a king of England.  If you go near it, you would find a bust of the king and the inscription “Edward VII, Peacemaker.”  As it was across the road, I did not dare go there.

English is the official language of Jamaica. In rural area, a mix of English and some African languages is spoken but it is not in written form. Jamaican speech, even in English, has a distinctive rhythmic and melodic quality.

Normal street life in Kingston Jamaica

This was a commercial area with many plazas and shopping arcades specializing in high fashion gear especially handcrafted leather shoes and belts.  But outside these plazas, was the usual hustle and bustle of traditional road-side stalls offering pirated CDs, DVDs, cassettes, fruits, rat-traps and freshly caught fish. The hubbub of motor vehicles was suppressed by the speakers blaring Jamaican Music known as reggae. I saw one peddler selling dried cakes and pastries.  Just out of curiosity, I went near him and he lifted a cover to show me marijuana.  I went away with a smile and continued my walk.  The market was vibrant and energetic. At times, there was smell of frying bacon and ganja smoke.

The place was quite crowded.  The footpaths were brimmed up with stalls and pushcarts while transport vehicles were going on the road with full speed.  For a pedestrian, there was a little room and at time I had to squeeze myself or charge through the crowd.  This could have been a perfect opportunity for pick-pocketing or even mugging but this was New Kingston and incidences were remote especially in the broad daylight.

Next day, I continued further from this point.  Half-Way-Tree was a junction of four roads.  I picked up one named as Hope Road since it required only turning right and no crossing.  But after a short distance, I saw across the road, a gorgeous structure giving an immense architectural delight.  It was Devon House nestled behind the majestic trees.  I looked left, right and again left before crossing the road.  (Driving in Jamaica is on the left-hand side of the road.)

In the past, this place was known as Millionaire’s Corner and this monumental mansion was built up by a super-rich man. It now serves as a tribute to the Jamaican craftsmanship besides a symbol of past glory.

Continuing further, I ended up before a museum of a great musician, Bob Marley. There was a ticket: Jamaican dollar 500 for local and US$ 20 for foreigners. (The market exchange rate was roughly J$ 87 per US $.)  I fished out a crisp Jamaican Note of 500 and pushed it toward the counter clerk.  She looked at me in disbelief but eventually gave in.  In fact, there are a large number of Pakistanis and Indians which are treated as residents and enjoy the same benefits as local.

The museum portrays the life and achievement of Bob Marley through artifacts, memorabilia, writings, photographs and other head turning mementos. He was born in Feb 1945 and died just at the prime age of 36.  He was a great singer, songwriter and musician.  His music was heavily influenced by the social issues of the homeland.  According to Cedella Marley, his first child, “He made his reggae music to uplift us, inform, entertain, inspire, and make change in the world. He’s a musician, a poet and songwriter, a philosopher, a soldier, an activist and a leader.”

Bob Morley Statue at Museum

Bob Morley was a member of Rastafari movement which started in one of the poorest and blackest places in Jamaica. It called for black unity, black identity and black empowerment. The followers consider Emperor Haile  Selassie of Ethiopia as god and looked towards him to break the chains of “racism, injustice and oppression to set the captive free”.

Some Rastas can be recognized from miles as they have long hair twisted into lengthy ropelike knotted locks. Mostly believe that smoking cannabis or ganja is a spiritual act to clear the body and mind.

My hotel was a mid-range hotel offering a spacious room with bath, telephone, TV, hot & cold water for US$ 40 per night. It was on the verge of closure as the middle-class it meant to cater was disappearing. It looked as if in future only two types of accommodation would survive: 5-star hotels and bug-infested guest houses.

Chelsea Hotel had a garden, a pool hall and an amusement centre. While idling in its lobby, I met a person who introduced him as “George Brownrigg”. Since he had white skin, I could not resist saying, “You don’t look like a Jamaican”.  He smiled as he was used to the pun and said, “No I am Jamaican of Irish decent and husband to Morrigan of the front office here”.

The island has a total population of 2.7 million of which 91% are black, their forefathers mainly hailing from Ghana and Nigeria. They were brought in as slaves in the middle of 18th century to work in sugar fields. Some were imported as temporary workers, called “swallow migrants” to harvest other crops or dig the Panama Canal.

ROAD TO MONTEGO BAY

I asked George to take me next day to Central Bus Station to catch a bus for Montego Bay.  He readily agreed but indicated that he expected 200 J$ (roughly $ 2.5) for a drink.  It was no big deal especially when he was trust-worthy. Next morning, I checked out and accompanied him.  We took a bus which dropped us at the edge of downtown.  We were instantly surrounded by a milling crowd of hustlers, pushers and pimps offering all types of goods and services. With brand new Samsonite Carryon and Jansport Backpack, all eyes were darted on me. I become scary and felt shiver running down my spine.  But George kept all hoodlums at bay sometime shouting at the top of his voice to attract attention. I felt relieved when he pushed me into a waiting bus.

The bus did not budge an inch till it was fully loaded with passengers and luggage. At long last it moved joining the slow traffic in the rush hours. The driver was aggressive and was cutting corners.  The roads were in disrepair with jarring potholes. I was made seated with a plump lady who kept on bumping into me on every jerk or sharp turn. Soon I became used to it and ignore her advances.

After leaving Kingston, the bus took a mountainous route occasionally dropping or picking up passengers. It passed through Parish of St. Catherine by Linstead, a town nestled in a valley surrounded by the cool hills. Soon the bus entered another valley with towering rocks and a gorge formed by “Copper River.” The entire area was rich with lush and varied vegetation. There were stands of bamboo, ferns, ebony, mahogany, and rosewood. The bus went through Bog Walk, a little town, offering abundant fruit on the road side particularly oranges, bananas, pineapples and sugar cane. There was some wildlife in particular wild hog, reptiles and lizards. However, birds were in abundance like kingfisher duck-like grebes, pelicans, herons and egrets.

The bus had no scheduled stops for eating or use of rest-room.  One has to ask the driver to stop.  Though I was not feeling the urge, I asked for a stop when I saw a big store in a town called Faith’s Pen. There was a clean restroom.  Near the store were vendors’ huts selling roasted chicken, fried fish, boiled corn and fruits.

After about 15 minutes, the bus resumed the journey and entered Parish of Saint Ann. A Parish is like a province with its own capital and key city.  The country is divided into 14 parishes. This seems a lot as Jamaica is tiny island with a total area of about 11,000 square km, situated in The Caribbean Sea. The entire Caribbean Region is made up of over 7000 islands, islets (very small rocky islands), coral reef and cays (small, sandy islands above coral reefs).

The bus was now running on the coastal highway and passed through Saint Ann Bay famous for its beaches and resorts. The route turns scenic when the road hugs the Caribbean Sea.

St Ann’s Bay displays many old historic buildings and monuments set between the brilliant green mountains and the royal blue Caribbean Sea.  As a result, it looked like ol’ time Jamaica.

Leaving ‘Saint Ann Parish’, the bus moved towards Runaway Bay which has fine beaches with gleaming sand and crystal-clear water.  Other than this, the bay is mostly a clutch of shops, snack bars and houses.

Next was town of Discovery Bay. It boasts of many historic sites such as the Green Grotto Caves and Columbus Park. Also, there are bauxite mines and Marine Laboratory of University of the West Indies, a good point for educational trips, scientific research, seminars and workshop.

Still ahead was Falmouth,  a small town with quaint wooden houses and Georgian style buildings.  It gained importance with the docking of cruise ships.

At long last, we reached Montego Bay in four hours covering a distance of 190 km.

Continued …

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