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

WPC: Warning Sea Urchins!


They do look dangerous, although I’ve never seen a warning sign on any beach. But if you don’t pay attention, this happens:


The brittle spines do not come out easily. Expect to hobble around for a week until they work themselves out of your flesh! Of course there is always this revenge:

WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge:  https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/danger/


O is for Out of Many, One People

Before I came to Jamaica, I was really only aware that most Jamaicans came originally as slaves from West Africa, although there were some white Jamaicans of British origin who roots can be traced back to those dark days.  However, I had no idea of how many other nationalities and ethnicities had come into the mix.

After independence from the British in 1962, Jamaica had a new flag and a new motto: “Out of Many, One People.”   In the little less than two years I’ve been here, I’ve come to understand a bit more of the complexities of why they picked that slogan.  I won’t attempt to write much on the sensitive subject of racial history and harmony, but a short history statement might be interesting to some:

Taíno Indians, also known as the Arawaks, were the original aboriginal inhabitants of Xamayca until the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th Century.    Western diseases wiped out the Arawaks, and today all that remains of them are a few genes and some rock paintings.  The country remained under Spanish rule until 1655, when it came under British possession, and Jamaica remained as a British colony until its independence fifty years ago.  During British rule, ships brought slaves in from Ghana until the early 1800s when political awareness in the UK started to reject the concept of slavery.  As it became harder to bring enforced labour from Africa, large numbers of Indian and Chinese workers were brought instead.  Later, immigrants from Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon fled the Middle East for a better life in Jamaica in the early 20th century, many of whom were Christians escaping persecution at the hands of Ottoman Muslims.   I had no idea that Jamaica was such a melting pot.  Interestingly, the pot literally includes a fushion of cuisines too:  curried goat from India, Jamaican patties from the UK, callalloo from West Africa, and there’s plenty of Chinese restaurants in Kingston.

So, do I see it as a harmonious blend?  I know that many don’t and tell me there’s plenty of racial prejudice and race-based economic disparity to go around.  Although I have no doubt that is true,  my personal impression has been pretty positive.  My Jamaican colleagues at work come in many skin tones and include ethnic European, West African, Indian and Chinese – or a mix of all of the above – much like their American counterparts.  Out of Many, One People may be a work in progress, but this is also true everywhere else in the world.  We all still need to work on getting along.


60 Days: Learning about Serbia

I’ve been to Belgrade once before on a train.  I remember rolling into the  busy  station and watching throngs of people spill out on to the platform.  We had recently arrived in Yugoslavia and, for the first time, had crossed the great divide between Western  Europe and the Communist Bloc.  It wasn’t quite the black and white world of old photographs that I’d imagined, but it was distinctly different, like I had traveled back in time 30 years.   Everything seemed strangely otherworldly: the uniforms,  the faces, the ubiquitous portraits of Tito, the Cyrillic signage and the distinct absence of English.

We were on our way to Athens, so we stayed put as the train waited for half an hour for everyone to embark.  Vendors with carts and trays cruised past the carriages and waved up at us from the platform.  One guy looked at our foreign faces and yelled “Cheez Pie”  in English.  He was carrying giant, round pies wrapped in greaseproof paper.  I pushed down the heavy sash window and bought one,  and then ate it hungrily,  amazed at the size and delicious, greasy foreignness of it.   That cheese pie is my biggest memory of Belgrade.  I was 20 years old.

Serbia, the world, and I have all changed a lot since then.  Now, two months before we leave Kingston, its time to re-learn the little that I know about Belgrade and perhaps expand my knowledge beyond the communist era train station.  So I asked Google:  What’s the city like? What is there to do?  Where to go? What its like to live there?

I learnt that Belgrade, broadly speaking, is split into two halves:  the old city with more traditional architecture and narrow streets, and New Belgrade, with more utilitarian, communist-style residential communities.  Twenty years after the Balkan war, the city has rebuilt but there are still pockets of destruction and ruined buildings awaiting demolition.  I’m excited to learn that it seems to be a very walkable city.  Firstly there are sidewalks,  which I greatly miss, and there seems to be an abundance of parks compared to anywhere else that I have lived other than London.  There’s also a good public transportation system, affordable taxis and perhaps river trips, which sound cool.  Belgrade also seems to have lots to do.  There seems to be a different themed street festival going on every other week:  beer, cheese, wine…. They seem to take Christmas seriously too, with German-style Christkindlmarts popping up around the city.

The country has four seasons, cold winters (with snow), hot summers and mild spring and fall weather.  When we tell people where we are going next, they say “Oh, that’s really different.  Its sooo cold there….brrrr.”  If this was just Jamaicans, I’d understand.  But it seems to be practically everyone, including people who don’t really know where it is!  We think they may be confusing “Serbia” with “Siberia”, as we don’t get the same reaction if we just say, “We’re heading to Belgrade.”  I’ve been spoilt with all this tropical living and, although I remember how fantastic the spring can be after the long winter months, I also miss wrapping up and getting out in the cool and cold.  Four seasons will be a pleasant change.

Produce, or green markets as they are called in Belgrade, are everywhere selling seasonal produce, which I expect to be every bit as good as Greece.  That is exciting for me.  I get excited about vegetables!

Everyone in the Foreign Service community that has lived or worked there tells me they loved it.  Its central Europe location makes other travel easy –  Belgrade is close to the Hungarian and Romanian borders, as well as the other ex-Yugoslavian countries, and about a 13hr drive to Greece if we are feeling adventurous.   We are close to Spetses and London and friends.  Its been a long time since we are only a few hours away.

How do I imagine Belgrade today beyond that first impression?  As a mixture of Greece and Russia:  one part traditional Athenian coffee culture with sidewalk cafes and boisterous, loud customers, and one part cold, grey Sovietism.   We will see.  Maybe I will stand corrected?

But first, once we get there in August, on my personal to-do list… the minute I get some time to explore by myself… is to go back to Belgrade station and find myself one of those cheese pies.  I wonder if they are still for sale?