WPC: Baby Elephant Playmate

Down in Chitwan, Nepal in the late afternoon, the nearby river was the favourite place for the local kids to play. The rowdy young boys played football and swam in the water together. Our resort elephant took her daily bath and her three month old calf lolloped around the riverbank looking for a friend.  The kids would chase her and encourage her to push and wrestle them to the ground.  I thought it was so great to have a baby elephant as a playmate.  I miss that place!



T is for Tourist Paradise

I had a struggle trying to find somewhere stay for our first trip to Jamaica’s north coast back in September 2015.    This might sound surprising as Montego Bay is the north coast’s largest town and a major tourist destination with an international airport bringing tourists directly from the US, Europe and South America.    A new modern highway now cuts directly from Kingston on the south coast,  making the trip easier and faster than ever.  The new road connects seamlessly with the north coast highway, which dashes past giant signs for resort after resort, but little can be seen from the road. The resorts, palm trees and the beaches themselves are hidden away.  Most offer luxury at an all-inclusive price, which is a popular option for tourists, as it includes accommodation and all you can eat food and drink.   The problem is that is its very expensive.  Prices get cheaper in the rainy season, but even after substantial discounts for locals, $250/night for a “room only” package is considered a deal.  Prices typically go way higher than that.

Our first experience in Montego Bay was pretty much a disaster.  I had shunned the expensive resorts in favour of a mid-range hotel on the supposedly famous “hip strip” in town, hoping that while Robert was working, I could walk, shop a little and enjoy the town.   The hip strip was anything but hip, with nowhere to hang out and just vendors bugging me to buy things I didn’t want.  Worse, the whole area had a feel of decay with closed down hotels and not a lot going on.  Clearly the all-inclusive resorts with their captive clientele had taken a huge toll on the town.   I didn’t like the room they gave us and when they refused to move us to another in a hotel that was obviously not full,  we packed our bags and left.

We moved to a mid-range resort hotel within per diem and were suddenly in the world of mass tourism and package holidays.  The beach was beautiful, but only accessible to hotel guests, and I wandered around a little watching the new arrivals relax into their new tropical surroundings.   One young woman stood beaming.  She literally grinned from ear-to-ear.  I smiled back and said, “You look happy.”    “Yes,” she said.  I’m in Jamaica!”  Suddenly I saw a person who had saved all year to come and who had probably escaped from somewhere cold and urban to feel the warmth of the Jamaican sun on her face.  I felt  ashamed that I had been so grouchy at my experience to date, and resolved to enjoyed the privilege of being in a place that others may never have the opportunity to visit.  But the truth remained that mass tourism is not our cup of tea and the likelihood of returning to that resort was slim.

Montego Bay — an attractive resort beach open only to guests

On later much-needed trips out of Kingston, we turned to smaller, local hotels and struggled there also.  We kissed quite a few hotel frogs before we found our Prince in a privately-owned Negril development, which became our favourite spot.  There are charming, affordable places to be found with a local flavour.  It’s just been a little harder here to find them.  Security issues and bad roads have added to the struggle.  There are independent tourists and Jamaicans who are looking for quality bed and breakfast places at reasonable prices, but the fact remains that the tourist volumes come for the convenience, quality and security of the all-in resorts and that’s where the focus remains.

I do hope that places like downtown Montego Bay develop in the future.  Clearly the old days are not coming back, but I do see the opportunity for smaller, boutique hotels that offer an alternative to the resort experience and widen the type of tourists who visit.  Mobay could be the artisan capital of Jamaican with cool, independently-owned shops and businesses.  The city center needs redevelopment though, and that looks like it’s not happening any time soon.

Jamaica has a reputation as a tourist paradise, and for good reason.    We discovered the pricey but stunningly beautiful, plantation-style  Half Moon Resort pretty late in our stay.  The last minute discovery has been kind of a blessing for the pocket book, as we surely would have returned if there was time.  I liked Half Moon so much more than the modern resorts we encountered.   There are plenty of beautiful beaches, romantic palm trees and lots of very attractive resort hotels in Jamaica but, in our limited time and experience here, its not been an easy fit for us, but we did manage to find our sweet spot in the end.

The beautiful Half Moon resort.  This I will miss!

WPC: Glimpses of Caribbean Life (Evanescent)

ev·a·nes·cent:  soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence; quickly fading or disappearing.
I like to capture daily life from the car whenever possible.  You get tiny vignettes of people’s regular routines, a glimpse of the mundane, extraordinary or odd.  They are not always the best quality shots but I enjoy them for their evanescent quality all the same:


S is for Scotch Bonnet Peppers

Everyone knows about Jamaica’s world famous Jerk chicken.  But not everyone knows that Jerk gets it spicy heat from Jamaica’s famous scotch bonnet peppers.  They get their name from their distinctive bonnet shape and impart an unique flavour above and beyond just their fiery heat.  We’ve learned to freeze them and pop one into stews or curries, as an instant way to kick up the temperature in so many dishes.

There are also a lot of Jamaican sauces and relishes that use scotch bonnet pepper as a main ingredient, especially the ubiquitous Grace Yellow and Green scotch bonnet pepper sauces.  I find the yellow one too hot and sweet, but the green one I am just addicted to… I keep waiting for the flavour to get old, but it doesn’t…I add it to everything!  Well, I haven’t put it on my morning cornflakes yet, but I’m not ruling it out!  I’m going to have to pack a case in our stuff before we packout .

R is for Rum Tour

The first thing that you notice at the Appleton Rum factory is the smell of fermentation.  It reminded me of our days standing on South American docks, where spilled grain unloaded from cargo ships was left to rot in the baking sun.  Its not a pleasant smell, but one that reminded us that we were about to begin a tour of an active distillery and learn a little about how Jamaica’s most famous rum is made.  This is really the only organised, touristy thing we’ve done in Jamaica, but everyone recommended it for the free-flowing rum, the hospitality, and the copious amounts of food they share to keep you from passing out in a drunken heap!  The party started early at around 9am with a drink steward handing out rum punch and sandwiches on the bus at the start of our 2.5 hour trip from Kingston to St Elizabeth Parish on the island’s south coast.  9am was a bit early for me to start on the rum!

The approach to the Appleton estate is through a fertile valley where they grow acres of cane sugar, right next to the factory that distills the rum today.  Watching workers in the fields, it was not hard to imagine a very similar scene being played out two hundred years ago, back in the dark days of Jamaica’s colonial past.

Little of the dark side is covered by the tour and the plantation house has long gone, but a few artifacts remain on the estate from past days: vintage delivery trucks, hand-carved grinding stones, and this little donkey who demonstrated how cane juice was once extracted:

I’d already had a little sip of rum-laced coffee by the time we got to the donkey.  Standing there in the blazing hot sun, I was immediately dizzy and glad that I didn’t drink anything else on the bus.  Next we moved onto his modern counterpart—large industrial cane grinders and storage bins where the juice is extracted and stored before move on to the distillers.

Next door in the distillery building it was burning hot, which is probably why I forgot to take photos.  Here the juice is boiled and, via a condenser, the steam is collected as clear alcohol.  The rum then goes on to be stored in barrels to age.

After the rum production tour, we went inside to learn more about the artistry of rum-making and to taste different blends. This, of course, was the best bit, especially as we had already had two rounds of carbohydrate-heavy meals on which it could land. I found the youngest rum undrinkable — rot gut, really — but its the cheapest and understandably the most popular. The vintage blends of more than 12 years, were more for sipping and too cloying for me. Fortunately, I found I liked the regular reserve the most, the rum that we have been drinking all along.

They then served more food and more rum before we staggered to the bus.  Not everyone had been as conservative as me, and enthusiastic, drunken karaoke belted out from the back of the bus for the ride home.  They had a good time and so did we, although I probably had a better morning the following day!  Appleton did a great job of hosting and I highly recommend the tour if you ever come to Jamaica.*

*At the current time of writing the distillery is closed to the public until November 2017 for extensive renovations.


Q is for Queen’s English

When I first moved to the US,  I noticed that many place names and map markings were British.  They would often pop up in unexpected places, often with characters in stark contrast to the British places that I knew by the same name. Here in Jamaica its been a similar history lesson, not only of place names but also the appearance of British customs and language in day-to-day interactions.  Jamaica was a British colony for over 300 years, so this is hardly surprising,  but there are not many other remnants of British colonization, aside from old churches, ruins of old sugar mills and some former plantations.  Most new construction developments are more American in style and Jamaica’s close proximity to the States means that much American culture has been absorbed in recent years. However pockets of British culture still preside.  Here are a few I see:

British terminology:  One our first day in Kingston a taxi cab that pulled up next to us: “licensed Hackney Cab,” it said.  The low-riding, beaten up sedan was a far cry from the original Hackney Cabs that I knew from history class, which were Victorian horse-drawn cabs, but its easy to see why the name remains.  Little British expressions like this crop up unexpectedly all the time.

Politeness:  Driving on Jamaican streets can be pretty aggressive and there are plenty of bad drivers, especially the aforementioned, dreaded taxi cabs who we plan on avoiding by spotting their red licence plates from afar.  But there is also an equal amount of generous, polite drivers who wait to let you out of a tricky intersection with a smile and a friendly wave forward.  Graciousness counts here….as does formal politeness.  Titles such as Mr. and Mrs. are still used frequently, and its considered very bad form to communicate without saying “Good Morning” and “How are you?” first.

The Royals:  The Royal family have made frequent trips to Jamaica over the years, and nostalgic black and white photographs pop up around the island.  There are churches, buildings and a few streets that bear their names, and most Jamaicans seem to generally feel positive about the Queen and Jamaica’s membership of the Commonwealth, now that she is no longer their patriarch.

All of this, of course, does not address so many terms and place names that are uniquely Jamaican:  Burnt Ground, Grateful Hill, Lucky Valley, Sooky Gal, Retreat Beach and Bloody Bay, to name a few.  What stories they must hold?!

WPC: Mother Thames

With so many amazing places to choose from where I have lived, at first it seemed difficult to pick a particular one.  But then I thought about my own heritage and what that means to me.  There’s no shortage of British heraldic symbols, but for me personally it has to be the Thames.  That river has literally and figuratively run through my life, as a child and young adult when I lived in London, and now whenever I have the opportunity to return.  Here are a few favourite pictures of familiar and perhaps less familiar portions, and Mother Thames, m’dear, I’ll see you next month!


P is for Patois

Jamaican Patios is perhaps best illustrated by example. If you’re not familiar,  the video above gives a little idea of what its all about.  When the interview starts, I think she speaks clearly in an heavily-accented English, but as the interview proceeds and she gets more angry, the dialect becomes heavier and its harder for me to understand, although she rarely loses me completely.  I’m not sure why the video’s poster called it “funny,” as the subject is very serious.  I imagine because of the animated way that she speaks, which becomes increasingly “crazy.”  But I find her style typical of very agitated Jamaicans who are speaking passionately about something, she just holds her arms awkwardly, as she is unfamiliar with how to speak into a microphone, and the camera angle accentuates that.

When I first arrived, I found it fairly easy to understand colleagues at work, but only when they were speaking directly to me.  If they turned their head in a meeting to consult with another Jamaican, my comprehension often dropped to only about 10%, as they would switch to the local lilt.  Recognizable English words would jump out from a tangle of Patois and, although I would know generally what was being discussed, it was often hard to make out the actual meaning.   Some staff, particularly those who interact less with Americans — gardeners, cleaners, workmen –have always been trickier to understand.  I still struggle today, although I am vaguely aware of improvement.  There are so many different levels of dialect all the way to full blown Patois, and the two years I have been here my ear has adjusted somewhat, but it is very hard to measure how far.  Its quite different to learning a new vocabulary in another language, although if I had applied some of the structure of language and vocabulary learning, I might have gotten further along.  I also wonder how well I’m understood, although I presume most Jamaicans fair better than me, just through continual exposure to American/British English on TV and radio.

To my non-Jamaican readers:  How well did you understand the woman in the video?

Cee’s Odd Ball Challenge: May 7, 2017

Here’s a few favourite Jamaican oddballs for Cee’s challenge this week.  I have an abandoned clothing theme going on:


Off for a quick dip?


Or there’s this pair that was abandoned altogether.  They inflated and deflated with each passing wave.


Hanging from an overhead cable that we drove under.  Must have been a game or challenge!

Cee’s Odd Ball Photo Challenge: May 7, 2017