Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Make it Jamaica

I spent last week in the Caribbean. Your sympathy is appreciated. The ordeal was overwhelming, with fine food and gorgeous locales dominating my every waking moment. It's a wonder I survived to tell the tale. We made several stops--with far too much to report for one single blog entry--so I shall break up my tale into several pieces, starting with our first port of call, Jamaica. The Wife has her writeup posted at her blog, for those of you interested in her take (along with some great photos).

You remember Jamaica, the tropical tourist paradise of the 1980's "Make it Jamaica" television ad campaign. That Jamaica is sadly long gone, wiped out in 1989 by Hurricane Gilbert which, in the span of 24 hours, wiped out the island's economy and threw more than half the population out of work. It was a devastating blow from which Jamaica has never recovered. But vestiges remain. Natural beauty abounds, and the people, despite rampant poverty, are a cheerful bunch with great pride in their nation. They have a lot to be proud of.

Having no interest whatsoever in the gated and secure tourist havens on the island, we'd contracted with a local guide named Michael well in advance, in order to see the real Jamaica. Our ship docked in Montego Bay, and armed guards patrolled the gated port of entry, refusing to let us out until our guide had been located and identified on the other side. This was our first clue that Jamaica wasn't as tourist-friendly has it once had been. The second clue came on the other side of the security perimeter--an extensive, tourist shopping village, filled with modern, hexagonal shops and large glass windows sat utterly abandoned. We're talking acres of market space, laid out as a grand outdoor mall that must've been busting at the seams with vendors and tourists shopping to their hearts' content 25 years ago. Today, the only people there are random taxi drivers looking for a quick fare and a woman calling herself "Eyelash" who offers to braid anyone's hair in cornrows for $20. It seems to me that the shopping center could be revived by pushing back the security fence 50 yards or so, but what do I know?

We drove through the city of Montego Bay into the smaller, hillside community of Tucker. "Nobody goes hungry in Jamaica," explained Michael, and I am inclined to believe him. Pretty much every tree and bush we passed along the road produced some type of fruit, coming into season at different times of the year so that there is always some of nature's bounty available for those to eat who don't have anything else. Appropriately enough, our first stop was a tiny hillside farm on the outskirts of Tucker, where the farmer grew all manner of tropical fruit (along with chickens and rabbits) for his own consumption, with the remainder sold to neighbors. The economy is a small, local scale one, and the farmer (whose name I've sadly forgotten) laughed when I asked if he sold his produce at a market.

Jamaican farmer points out breadfruit tree

If there is a tropical fruit that exists, this man most likely had it growing somewhere on his few acres clinging to the edge of the hill. There were several types of bananas (including the ubiquitous plantain and also super-sweet honey bananas), star fruit, bread fruit, coconut palms, pineapples, avocados, squash, tomatoes, cacoa trees, coffee trees, sugar cane, prickly pear, sour oranges and a smallish, super-sweet varietal of orange he assured us is only grown on Jamaica.

Jamaican soursop or custard apple

One of the most interesting fruits he had for us to sample was the apple-sized, green-skinned ball in the image above. It had a thick rind, not entirely unlike an orange, but it was very smooth. Inside, the pulp was ivory colored and creamy in texture, with semi-large black seeds in the core. The the creamy pulp was mild in flavor, tasting of mild banana and vanilla. "Custard-like" is over-used, but that's the best description for this. Between the farmer's thick accent and other fruits he shared with us, I missed the name. Online searches have proven frustrating as well. I've narrowed it down to either a Jamaican soursop or custard apple, but descriptions and images don't perfectly match up with either. If you ever get the chance to try one, however, I highly recommend it.

Jamaican farmer cuts open a young coconut

The other big surprise waiting for me came when the farmer whipped out his trusty machete. On Jamaican farms, the machete is the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife--it's used for everything. He gathered several orange-hulled coconuts and hacked the ends off, so that there was an opening for a straw in the side. Then the coconuts were distributed for us to drink from. Now, folks who know me know that I can't stand coconut. The texture and flavor are utterly repulsive. The scent is tolerable, but to put it plain and simple, I don't like the stuff. Yet this humble farmer was sharing some of his valuable crop with me, and it would be shameful on my part to decline. So I took a sip. Friends and neighbors, Robert Mitchum probably said it best with his song "Coconut Water". This stuff tasted nothing like any coconut I've ever had. The unripe, young coconut had a mild, slightly sweet juice inside that tasted wonderful. It didn't taste at all like coconut. It didn't taste like vanilla, but it had that same sort of subtle flavor profile. And the jelly! The immature coconut meat had a gelatin-like texture we used shards of husk to scrape out once the water had been consumed, and the jelly had that same, wonderful flavor. If this stuff were readily available in Texas, I'd definitely become a regular fan.

Flower in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Remember how I said earlier that nobody goes hungry in Jamaica? Well, nobody goes without flowers, either. Everything bloomed here, usually with spectacular results. There were more beautiful flowers per square yard here than I've ever seen before, and most of them I had no clue as to what they were. There were quite a few Pride of Barbados, but most, like the wonderful crimson raceme above, are a beautiful mystery.

Cinder block home in Montego Bay, Jamaica

That beauty doesn't hide the poverty, however. The majority of the population around Montego Bay live in humble accommodations, to say the least. Very few homes have running water, with bathing and washing done in the rivers and streams. Houses are simple affairs, often constructed by squatters on any spot of available land, and many cling precariously to the hillside. We drove past a dump, and many shacks constructed from debris scavenged from there. One thing that really stood out, however, is the apparent pride Jamaicans take in even these simple buildings. A surprising number of them had these impressive covered patio entrances, framed by Greek columns. This grandiose feature was incongruous considering the ramshackle nature of the rest of the houses, but was a very common building trend.

Montego Bay houses

Another common trend was the bright, tropical colors the houses were painted. Bright, joyous colors were the order of the day--at least for those homes that had reached a general state of completion. More often than not the houses were only partially finished, raw cinder block walls and sheet metal roofing seen more often than not. Michael explained that the residents would get a little bit of money and build until the money was exhausted. Then they'd start saving again, until they had enough cash to make more progress. Some homes took years to complete, and houses with incomplete second floors were regular sights.

Grand piano at Hotel Grace in Montego Bay, Jamaica

We toured the colonial-era Hotel Grace, one surviving vestige of Jamaica's more prosperous past. The stately manor occupies one of the highest points in Montego Bay, and commands a spectacular view over the city and harbor. It is now a special events venue, hosting destination weddings and other high-end happenings. My daughter, Fairy Girl, spotted a grand piano and took her cue to play a rousing rendition of Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" to the delight of everyone there. It was a special moment for her, one I'm happy to have been a part of.

The Pork Pit restaurant in Montego Bay

Afterwards, we drove over to The Pork Pit, our most touristy destination of the day. Frequented by tourists and locals alike, the place had open-pit grills and was evocative of the best old-school barbecue stands in Texas, but here they specialized in jerk pork and jerk chicken. I have to say, they are really, really good at what they do. I had half a pound of jerk pork with rice and beans, and it was spectacular. The hot pepper sauce/relish in the squeeze bottles was phenomenal as well. I could've eaten until I burst. A sobering moment came when Michael (who we'd bought lunch) mentioned that he loved jerk pork but could only afford it on special occasions. Here was our guide, a quick-witted, relative sophisticated business man who made a good living compared to most of his countrymen, not being able to afford his culture's signature meal. That was a poignant reminder of how precarious the Jamaican economy is for all but the most wealthy of Jamaicans.

Jamaican newspaper vendor

By far, the majority of Jamaicans we saw scratched out a living similar to this newspaper vendor, who sold papers in the middle of the highway during rush hour. Traffic is chaotic in Montego Bay, resembling a Shriners' parade go-cart scramble. And there was no median for the vendors to stand on, so they made their way through the traffic. In addition to newspapers, we saw others hawking fruit, soft drinks, and in at least one case, Red Stripe Beer to the passing motorists.

The streets of Montego Bay, Jamaica

The streets of Montego Bay itself were constantly crowded. Peddlers sold all manner of items on the sidewalks as foot traffic pushed by. There was much litter everywhere. It was noisy and raucous, but most people seemed happy from my limited vantage point. Our guide pointed out tourists walking down the sidewalk (there were very easy to spot, I assure you) and then pointed out their guide, explaining they'd have been robbed by now were they not with a knowledgeable guide. I was not inclined to disbelieve him, and for most of the trip The Wife and I tried to keep our Canon cameras out of sight--or at least inconspicuous--as possible.

Dump-Up Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica

We wrapped up the day at Dump-Up Beach, a gated beach park frequented by locals and tourists alike. Music played from loudspeakers, and locals would break into impromptu reggae song at the slightest provocation. Most of the tourists were American college students on spring break (although there were some Brits as well) and these students were more often drunk than not. Several of the local men took the opportunity to chat up the American co-eds, and the co-eds didn't seem to mind. Still, the beach was well-kept and quiet. The sand was white and clean, and the water crystal clear and amazingly still, making it easy to catch glimpses of fish beneath the surface. Across the bay we could see our ship docked, and the troubles of the world seemed a million miles away. During our afternoon of driving around Montego Bay, we passed high-walled resorts for Sandals and other hotel chains. The people holed up in there were missing everything that made Jamaica unique. My children experienced another culture, and saw first-hand how hard life is for many people elsewhere in the world. I hope it gives them a better appreciation for the many luxuries and advantages they enjoy.

View of Montego Bay from Hotel Grace

I'd like to return to Jamaica some day, but probably not for quite a few years. I'd like to hope that the passage of time will help the island regain its footing and lift itself out of the crushing poverty it's fallen into, but I have no great confidence in this. Tourism alone can't rescue the country, and there's little industry otherwise that can boost it from within. Still, in any place with this much natural beauty, there's always hope.

For more photos from our Jamaica trip, visit the gallery at Lisa On Location.

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  1. Anonymous12:18 AM

    no offense but Jamaica is poor, but not Africa poor. there are plenty of well constructed homes in jamaica alongside ramshackle places as well. Very few people starve in jamaica.

  2. The name of the fruit you described is the "Starrapple".

    I am Jamaican

  3. It's a star apple!!!!