Its been a while since I did a WordPress Photo Challenge and I’ve missed them! Here’s a few of my favourite nature camouflage pictures:
It was interesting to me when we first arrived in Jamaica in 2015 that there would soon be a general election. We arrived to a similar situation in Nepal in 2013, but the circumstances were a lot different. In Nepal, free elections were almost a brand new concept and the country was still struggling to stop tire-burning demonstrations,molotov cocktails being lobbed on street corners and spontaneous rioting. Efforts were underway to prevent illegal voting and the city was transformed into a ghost town on election day, with all moving vehicles (except for official vehicles) banned from the street. Voters had to walk to polling stations in an effort to prevent bussing.
Here in Jamaica they have their own history of election violence, but in recent years it has been much less prelevant. Part of the tactics used to prevent election unrest includes control on the display of party materials, which was explained to me when I asked why there were so few political posters around. Instead of the usual visual blast spread all over a city during elections, Kingston only displayed a modest few. Close to the election date, we did see bus loads of orange-clad (PNP) and green-clad (JLP) supporters – the two main parties — as they headed off to rallys, and we watched their orange and green litter blowing down Hope Road on the days leading up to the vote. On 26th February 2016, Andrew Holness of the JLP was elected Prime Minister with very little civil unrest, and the Jamaican world moved on.
These experiences bring me to the US election, with primaries starting just as the Jamaican election finished. I feel that my whole time here has been one long — one very long — election season. Most Jamaicans that I know have access to cable TV with CNN and BBC coverage of what has been going on in US politics and are remarkably informed on the issues as well as the latest scandalous outburst. In fact, its kind of shocking how closely they follow — its clear that they are not listening to only one media source — and know the ins and outs of each new shenanigan. There’s an overwhelming disbelief that US politics could be going so badly and that rules, precedents and established norms are being so openly flouted. I wonder how they feel about what they see in contrast with Jamaican corruption and I can only feel deeply embarrassed from where I stand, which appears to be somewhere in the first twenty minutes of a disaster movie.
I only feel more disheartened for my dear Filipino friends and what it must be like to live in a country that now openly murders people in the street, just a few short years since I lived there. Democracy is never to be taken for granted.
Before I came to Jamaica, I read there were a lot of churches on this small island and, boy, they weren’t wrong; the Guinness Book of Records states that Jamaica has more churches per square mile than anywhere in the world other than the Vatican. They range from tiny little churches in small communities like the one above, to pretty Victorian stone chapels that might have been transplanted from England, to large, modern open-air domes full of swaying arms and bodies. On a Sunday, its a common sight to see older ladies in their Sabbath best: conservative mid-calf dresses, sensible shoes, fancy hats and handbags on their forearms. Running ahead are their adorable grandchildren, all dressed up in lacey fineness with matching shoes and ribbons. I want to take their pictures but its not appropriate. It can feel like I just stepped back into 1950. The children are adorable but something in me feels uncomfortable….I think it is the religious messaging I see.
Unlike most other Caribbean nations, the vast majority of Jamaican Christians are Protestant, with a relatively high percentage being from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, nearly a fifth of the entire country—18.5 percent—is evangelical and another 11 percent is Pentecostal and growing rapidly.
I am not a religious person, although I do respect the religious beliefs of others. But these statistics explain a lot of about the “fire and brimstone” religious messages that are so common here.
I don’t particularly like the warnings of a vengeful God that I see relayed everywhere. I don’t like the hateful LGBT messages published in the newspapers. The church and its warning to sinners show up everywhere in daily life.
Books stores I’ve visited seem to sell mainly religious books. There are religious pamphlets on every store counter. Its all a bit much for my secular eye and I like to believe that if there is a God, it is a loving one. I know there are religious groups here that do so much to help those in need, but I don’t see them, they are in areas deemed too unsafe for me to visit. So what is visible to me is religious fury and I don’t like it.
Before we came to Jamaica, I had heard of their world famous Blue Mountain coffee and was excited to try it. My first cup was at a small coffee chain called Cafe Blue in a shopping mall close to the Embassy. It was very popular spot and it was hard to find a table, but I managed to find a seat in the Starbucks-like cafe and I tried my first cup. I was surprised at first how mild it was and a little weak too, I thought. I’ve always drunk strong Ethiopian-style coffee and the Blue Mountain Java was pleasant but it sort of underwhelmed me. I bought a 1lb of beans to take home anyway, so I could try it in my own kitchen and it grew on me. I think I brewed it a little stronger than the cafe (sorry Blue Mountain connoisseurs if this is sacrilegious.) This helped and I developed a taste for the smooth flavour and mild non-acidic finish. But it is expensive at about $30/pound. We switched to Jamaican high mountain coffee, which is good –if not as exceptional as Blue Mountain — but a much more reasonable price, and it makes me happy that at least I’m drinking a local product that supports the local economy…but I did ask myself why I didn’t see a real coffee culture in Jamaica?
After all, before international products were easily available as we see now, local food and drink traditions became popular because they were affordable and that’s what you could find. Jamaican has a long history of coffee farms, but where are the coffee drinkers? I don’t mean to say that no one drinks coffee or there aren’t any coffee shops, but there’s a distinct lack of coffee as part of local tradition and I wondered why?
There’s few basic reasons for this that I can see: Here at $2.50+ a cup its expensive and not an every day treat for most people. At work, unlike all other countries we’ve lived, there’s no decent coffee available – despite the fact that coffee is one of Jamaica’s most well-known exports. Therein lies the problem, as its famous coffee is exported for a very high price, Very little Blue Mountain coffee is available locally, and what remains is just crazy expensive for most people. Add to that the threats from rust disease, hurricanes and the abandonment of coffee farms in recent years, which have further limited the availability and affordability of the drink.
Why can Blue Mountain coffee demand such a high price? Because its unique flavour comes from the rare, ideal conditions produced on the high slopes of the Blue mountains, Its expensive because harvesting in that difficult terrain can’t be automated and coffee cherries on the same tree ripen at different times, so harvesting doesn’t happen in one visit. It an ongoing, labour-intensive process, but the result is a higher quality product. (In some coffee-growing countries, particularly on large farms on flat ground, the farmers compromise and harvest the cherries all at once, but the mix of ripe and unripe beans affects the overall quality. ) Unique conditions, limited terrain, and high processing costs results in high quality, high demand coffee and farms export about 70% of it to get the best price – most of it goes to Japan.
So, here in Jamaica, I don’t really experience a coffee culture. (Making coffee in my kitchen doesn’t count.) I miss having a coffee spot at work where you can easily grab a good cappuccino and a few minutes with a colleague. The black stuff they serve in the cafeteria doesn’t count either! But I’m sure they’ll be cafes a-plenty in Serbia – probably serving a strong Turkish-style cup. Hope brews eternal!
I’ve always associated this strange knobbly fruit with Captain Bly and the Bounty but I had never actually handled one, eaten it or seen one growing on a tree, but I knew it was popular here and I looked forward to trying it.
In Jamaica they are probably second only to rice as the important carbohydrate content of a meal, although from a little reading I learnt that West African slaves in Jamaica didn’t take to them at first. But the trees grow well here, producing an abundant amount of fruit year round and they eventually became an important part of the local cuisine.
Breadfruit dishes can be roasted, mashed or fried, but they all start out being cooked on a flame until they are blackened all over. I really wondered what these guys were doing with their drum barbecues and piles of blackened footballs along the side of the road.
I have to admit I was really disappointed the first time I tried roasted breadfruit. I didn’t think about “roasted” meaning anything other than crispy, and was disappointed to get a pallid slab of white vegetable that looked (and tasted) a lot like a sponge. I suppose a lot of carbohydrates eaten worldwide — rice, bread, tapicoa — are pretty bland. Its how we use them to eat other parts of our meal. Its how they sop up the gravy, how the remind us of a homemade dinner or give us that feeling of comfort food and a full belly that really make them a favourite. Of course, my experience lacked that connection. I didn’t eat more than a couple of bites.
I tried them again fried and like them much better. (I’m afraid that its true that most things taste better fried.) The same pre-roasted slices of breadfruit had been dropped into hot oil and browned, giving me something which was much more like the “roasted” I had expected the first time. An improvement, but not enough to make me seek it out on a menu again.
In modern kitchens like ours with no gas, the barbecue is the only way to cook them and the production involved means that I haven’t had the drive to experiment with the fruit. A little tour of the internet shows me other have been quite creative with breadfruit used in a wide variety of recipes other than just the ubiquitous, basic roasting and frying.
For me, however, all-in-all not a great new culinary experience, but I do enjoy seeing them around and they grow on some very pretty trees.
One of the first things I noticed on the fruit stalls around Kingston was this odd-shaped fruit:
They are easy to spot from a distance with those distinctive black seeds busting out of what looks like an overripe casing. What on earth were they? I learnt quite quickly that they are the treasured Jamaican ackee fruit, which is used to make the national breakfast dish, Ackee and Saltfish. More on that later.
Then I started to notice Ackee trees around town. The unripe bell shaped fruits hang from trees everywhere. They aren’t ready to be picked until they split open and the black seeds are on display, as they are poisonous before they’re ripe. I understand that you can’t buy them fresh (or canned even) in the US as the FDA have classifed ackee as poisionous and even the canning process doesn’t destroy the toxins if the ackee being processed were picked underripe. However, this is not a concern here as locals know very well how to pick and process them.
The trees aren’t native to Jamaica but come originally from West Africa, probably along with the slaves that were also imported from there. Fruit grows abundantly and can produce a harvest all year long. I’ve read that the wood is termite resistant, so perhaps that’s another reason that so many people have them in their yards.
Preparation of the national dish, Ackee and Saltfish, starts by removing the fleshy arils from the open husks (taking care to also remove the toxic red membrane) and boiling them until they’re soft.
The arils look a little scrambled eggs when they are cooked and have a similar mild flavour and texture. They are mixed with flaked salt cod, onions, tomatoes and green peppers to make the famous dish. I’ve tried it a couple of times and its pretty good!
I’m not sure if its fair to say that life in Jamaica has been the only reason that my blog has been so neglected the last six months. But it has certainly been a significant factor. The city is small and much of it is off limits to me, and I feel the fish bowl effect often. My initial curiosity about the place has not been replaced, as it so many other countries, with a growing appreciation and knowledge of where I am. The reason why is not a simple explanation, but the subject of a longer blog post for another day, perhaps. For now, let’s just say I just haven’t made the usual connection with the place.
Glancing back at posts from other places we have lived, I’m amazed how many memories come flooding back from the smallest things and I think that in future years I will regret adding such a small Jamaican chapter here. To break the silence I’m going to try a vehicle used by others: A-Z. Its a way to cover small things that remind me of Jamaica with the alphabet as my guide. I’ll start tomorrow with A for Ackee…but in the meantime…some news…
The Foreign Service bidding season has kept us busy and we finally know where we are going next. The news is good and we are very excited to give the following clue on where we will be living next summer:
Earlier this week, April 25 to be exact, marked the passing of one year since the Nepali earthquake. The anniversary was covered a little in the media if you watched carefully, and referenced in the coverage of the more recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador. But, it has largely been forgotten by most. Facebook reports from friends in Nepal focus on how little has been achieved since the first wave of humanitarian help, and after donations from all over the world poured in to rebuild homes and infrastructure, the news I hear is not good. Reconstruction projects are tied up in red tape. Little has been achieved. Villagers who lost their homes and possessions still live precariously in tent villages waiting for help. For many the aftermath of the disaster in frozen in time.
One year on for me, its a very different story. I can hardly believe its been only a year…a particularly challenging one too..with so many changes. New country, new job, new home…in a completely different corner of the planet. Yet a big part of my heart remains in Nepal.
Among the many reminders of our time there is a tapestry project that I worked on during the crisis. I’ve made a tapestry cushion in several of the countries that we have lived, picking a subject that appealed to me, as well being symbolic of my time in that country. After a long online search, I picked a beautiful peacock in shades of blue and purple. Its a memory of my time in Chitwan where we watched wild peacocks running around on the jungle floor. The plan was to slowly work on it, especially during all the travel required before we reached Jamaica. I started work on the tail, a little every night.
We spent the first two nights after the earthquake sleeping on Robert’s office floor. As we headed over to the safety of the Embassy, I grabbed a little overnight bag, a book, and the tapestry for something to do. In the days that followed immediately after the earthquake, I worked on the tapestry almost non-stop. There was something extraordinarily calming about the repetition of the “needle in, needle out”needlework stroke, giving my hands something to do and occupying the motor skills function of my brain, which handled the task of deciding the direction of stitching and what section to tackle next, leaving the rest of my brain to work on processing what had happened. I guess it was kind of a meditation.
Ironically, I was unable to finish it before we left. The kit I purchased had been mispacked and I had reams of purple and blue leftover, but ran out of the background colour. The manufacturer in England had gone out of business and I had to search online until I could track down the wool brand, identify the particular shade of white, and find a supplier that could mail it to me. After several months of unsuccessful tries, I was able to source the wool and finish the tapestry here in Jamaica. Yet the project is still not complete. Its yet to become a cushion and now I have to figure out where to buy sewing supplies in Kingston..the hunt goes on! Its tempting to somehow symbolically connect the project with my personal journey from Nepal to Jamaica, how all the little stitches over time form not just a picture, but their own tapestry of memories, challenges and unresolved issues that have been part of any big change in life, but especially this one….or something like that….
These strange, prehistoric-looking birds are pretty common in Jamaica. I find them fascinating to watch. Painfully awkward and gangly on land with impossibly large heads, balanced on the nearest fence they look to me like they may just topple over. But they are as graceful in the air as they are clumsy on land, and its really fun to watch them swoop overhead, scanning the water for their next fishy treat. Once a target is spotted, they dive head first into the water with a very loud splash and reappear seconds later bobbing on the water’s surface. We watch closely to see if anything is caught. There’s a pause, spilling water pours from the upward-pointing beak, and then comes the gulp. Success! –in fact, there’s rarely a miss. Then its back over to the favorite lookout spot for a 20 minute break before the hunt begins again. Its become a favorite pastime for us too.
A tough photo challenge this week for me. I was kind of stuck until my son reminded me of this wonderful photo that was taken when he was 14. The lighthouse peninsular on Spetses hosts about a dozen metal sculptures hidden among the pines trees or out on the rocks. Interacting with the art is a given. You want to pose with the mermaid or crawl on top of the chain mail sheep. Here’s my entry this week:
And a few more just to show off the uniqueness of the place: