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.
As a kind of part two to my earlier post about our stay in the blue mountains, here are some favourite photos from the trails around Holywell. They were much too interesting not be awarded a post of their own, and it was a great excuse to use my macro lens.
The minute we entered on to the cabin grounds, we were approached by a salesman selling raspberries. I had heard they grew up here and was planning on picking some myself, but when I saw how I would have to scramble down steep trail banks to get them it certainly seemed worth buying them rather than getting a broken ankle. This went against my hunter-gatherer instinct but it was probably a smart decision. When I told the sales guy that picking them looked a bit risky, he said, “I know what you mean. That’s why I have my own plants at my house!”
It is crazy expensive here. We were warned. Its easy to think of things like French Chevre or other luxury food items as being understandably pricey. However with less fancy items like apples, celery, leeks, potatoes – items that we think of as being inexpensive nutritious foods that we like to eat everyday–it becomes a lot harder to accept. But the import gods make no such distinction. You want it? Then thou shalt pay anyway… and through the nose…Paying for the privilege of maintaining expat standards is par for the course when you live outside your home country (whichever country that is – I lose track.) If you want peanut butter in (fill in your current country name) you pay. Which is not unreasonable as someone had to ship it here, pay import taxes, and find a niche market that buys it. And we accept that these are treats and, like all treats, they are an occasional expense that we justify as a reward for homesickness or little crutches to help with the challenges of adaptation. There’s not really much I can’t live without these days: maybe good tea, good coffee, healthy cereal (a great comfort food), cheese… but nothing I have to have. But oh I start to miss the variety and choice elsewhere!
I have long cherished the idea that it is good to eat local foods — at local prices — and to learn how to benefit from delicious cuisine that the locals enjoy without the extravagance and expense of expat imports. However, in practice, I’ve only had limited success. As I am a vegetarian, the quality of produce is of the highest importance and Jamaica and our previous two posts haven’t done very well in this respect. The Philippines had fabulous produce grown in the Northern part of Luzon, but after they trucked in down in unrefrigerated trucks for 10 hours in the searing heat and, after leaving it lying around for another 10 hours until a vendor bought it, by the time it reached our kitchen it was often putrefying from the inside out. I feared what I might find oozing in my vegetable bin after only 12 hours in the fridge! Local meats and poultry were tough and stringy. Fortunately, fish and fruit excelled.
In Kathmandu local, seasonal fruits and vegetables were sometimes very good, but many were imported from India and made the same sad journey to our table. Worse, bad sanitation made the consumption of fresh local produce dangerous without bleaching. Salad in the winter was a no-no because of a microscopic parasite. Yet, with some good kitchen management, it was my most successful attempt at eating local. Our housekeeper would shop from the local market, sanitize the vegetables and cook local food, which I had nearly every day for lunch.
Here in Jamaica I find a lot of the local food is not for me. Most vegetables are the starchy root variety, which have often been fried, so I head to the supermarket produce aisle for imported vegetables. I buy local produce there whenever I can, with mixed results, as the quality and freshness of local produce is often not there either. The imported vegetable prices are skyrocketedly crazy: $17 for a tiny, withered cauliflower. $20 for a punnet of yellowing mushrooms. A small bag of apples can cost $15. I just can’t do it most of the time. And I can’t get to the local markets which I am suspicious carry a better selection at better prices, so I am now actually looking at canned and frozen vegetables as a supplement to the overpriced “fresh” produce available to me. There are some imported quality brands available at reasonable prices. Its a quite exciting discovery and a new low at the same time.
Probably my biggest sell out on the subject of eating and buying locally is the move to Walmart online shopping. They ship orders over $45 for free and this opens a huge world of savings for items like mayonnaise, toilet paper, washing powder. If they can ship it, we can have it at one third to half the price that it costs in Kingston. A significant saving. The sellout comes when I think about principles of shopping local, how much jet fuel it took to fly my bread flour here. But then again, the same jet fuel was burned to bring these items to the local shelves where I pay 2-3 times the price, and the difference in cost is not supporting organic practices or paying carbon footprint taxes. So, I reckon that if I can’t live without it at all, and honesty I can’t–at least not without some of it–then I will continue support the exploitative practices of the Walton empire to get at their cheap prices, and will continue to burn jet fuel doing it. It doesn’t make me proud but it does make life happier.
On a more positive note, we are discovering the blue mountain farms that deliver fresh organic produce to Kingston. Getting it has been challenging between delivery dates, communication problems and junk mail filters…but hopefully next week we’ll get our first delivery. How exciting would it be to be able to buy good, fresh produce that supports local farmers? And hopefully doesn’t cost an arm and a leg either… More on this to follow (I hope!)
We first discovered Holywell Recreational Park on an exploratory weekend drive in the mountains above Kingston. It takes somewhere between 1-1.5hrs to drive the narrow, windy and treacherous road up the mountain. Timing sort of depends on what you get stuck behind, or who’s behind you threatening to overtake uphill on a curve. Drivers here can be crazy that way! Along the road’s edge are plenty of vehicles that tell the story of what can go wrong on blind bends, frighteningly many actually. Or perhaps these were under-maintained vehicles that just gave up the ghost trying to make it up the steep ascents. Most have been stripped of details like hub caps, tires, or wing mirrors and are now just sitting there rusting. It can be hard to see what fell off and what was taken…but I digress…
Holywell was a wonderful discovery. Its a park open to groups for nature tours or individuals that just want to get outside and find some fresh mountain air. It has well marked trails that aren’t too difficult, great views, as well as places to camp. When we spotted the cabins for rent we planned on coming back to stay for a couple of nights, which is exactly what we did after the Christmas holidays.
Best of all, the cabin had a large, covered deck with sweeping views across the mountains and down to the port of Kingston and the sea. It was a great place to read or catch a movie, and watch the ever changing sky roll by before us. We will go back.
Our second unplanned stop on our recent Port Royal trip was the large and mostly abandoned Old Naval Cemetery on the outskirts of town. Enclosed by a brick wall, the left-hand side of the cemetery is open scrub land. Whatever graves may have been there are long gone. On the right, there are rows of numbered crosses in various states of disrepair. Alongside the simple crosses, more elaborate, older, stone graves are carved with the names of sailors from the late 1800s. Many were victims of yellow fever and almost all are British naval personnel. Everything leans a little to the left or right, or tilts forward or backwards, sitting awkwardly on the unstable sandy soil.
The history of the cemetery goes back to the 1600s but, yet again, the earthquake of 1692 sent a large part of history into the sea and famous graves such as that of the notorious pirate, Henry Morgan, are lost forever.
I learnt that recently a 40-strong detail of sailors from HMS Lancaster helped restore the neglected graves of their forebears when their frigate visited Jamaica in 2013. They cleaned up the overgrown graves, explaining how we could even walk into somewhere in such disrepair. Whatever did it look like before they cleared it out? Its such a shame that so much history sits so neglected.
Off the quiet road on the way down to Port Royal, we took a little detour to follow an unexpected sign. “To Fort Rocky”, it said. I had read a little about a few other old forts in the area and was expecting the ruins of old stone walls, but was surprised to see an abandoned compound that was quite modern. The fort’s dusty courtyard was surrounded with crumbling and roofless concrete structures. Rusting rebar poked out around windows and door frames. My eye lead straight to the graffiti-sprayed walls and signs of vagrant inhabitation. Cacti sprouted in incongruous spaces. What was it? And why was it abandoned? I had no idea and there were no other clues. The sun was fierce and there was little shade, but I had to take a few pictures:
A little research online when we returned home revealed that Fort Rocky was built just before the first world war. Fort Rocky became a major coastal guns defense, replacing the Victoria Battery at Fort Charles that was damaged in the 1907 earthquake. The fort regularly housed more than 80 officers before it was closed after the end of the second world war. I wish I had known during our visit that the area also had a steam railway that ran down the Palisadoes pennisula, near to Fort Rocky, all the way down to Port Royal. Prior to 1936 there was no driveable road and the railway provided a way to transport important supplies. There are still remnants of the old railway bridge to be spotted today, but I didn’t know to look. Interesting piece of abandoned history.
I’m glad I did my homework before visiting Port Royal, one of the few remaining forts in Jamaica from the days of British colonialism and pirates. There’s not a great deal of history left in Kingston, and visiting Port Royal is a easy day trip for new arrivals to the city. There’s not much left to see, but a HUGE amount of history, most of which now sits hidden on the ocean floor.
Its easy to see why the British built the fort at the mouth of the large, protected bay of Kingston. On the modern map above, this strip of land now hosts Kingston’s Norman Manley international airport. You can see the long rectangle in the middle of the map that is today’s airport runway, so visitors to Port Royal must drive out past the airport to discover its charms, which is what we did a couple of weekends ago.
The first surprise is just how suddenly the city ends after the airport and the road appears to continue to nowhere, and sleepy Port Royal is as close to inhabited nowhere that I have seen. People are just slouched around in the heat, dogs are napping, stretched out in the middle of the street. Barely a car passes by. However, the well-preserved fort was open to visitors and our guide waved and introduced herself, but clearly had no intention of actually doing a tour. We didn’t mind this too much. I had done my reading beforehand and we walked around the restored building, toured the small museum and looked out to the sea beyond to imagine what lay beneath.
On June 7 1692, a huge earthquake hit the busy, prosperous Port Royal. Famously dubbed “the wickedest city on Earth”, Port Royal was once home to pirates and their plunder, bars, brothels, and riches galore. It was the original Sin City of the Caribbean, its riches built by UK-government sanctioned pirates, looting from passing Spanish and French ships. In return for limiting their operations to foreign vessels, for over 70 years the pirates were deemed to be “privateers”, and allowed to stash and spend their spoils on the nefarious peninsular without hindrance or taxes. Two-thirds of Port Royal fell into the sea that day and the vast majority of it still sits untouched and preserved as it was four hundred years ago. Whole streets, buildings, and every day life lay buried on the sea floor and the lure of buried treasure and history has been of great interest to a number of diving expeditions over the last century. Many of the artifacts they discovered now sit in Port Royal’s museum, but excavating the city that is still down there remains an enormously expensive proposition. There were plans 30 or so years ago to open a Williamsburg-like pirate attraction but it threatened the preservation of the sunken city itself and was shelved. Modern plans to develop the site for cruise ship visitors, complete with a sunken visitors center and the possible excavation of some of the city seem to buried in problems of money, investors and environmental concerns. Its hard to tell from the internet articles, but the project seems to be forever stalled. If done right, it would be a wonderful world heritage site and a massive injection of money and work opportunities into the otherwise dead local economy.
At the back of the fort are more modern remnants of its years as a successful British Royal Navy dockyard until 1907 when the next major earthquake struck the area. Many buildings were destroyed, but a few still remain, including the ‘giddy house’ which sits half buried in the sand.
Other restoration projects are underway. The Royal Naval Hospital is currently being restored and was too boarded up to take pictures. However, I did stop into the 18th century St Peters church to have a look around during its current restoration. Two earlier churches on the site were destroyed: one in the earthquake and another in a later fire. There were also a couple of other places near Port Royal that warrant short posts of their own, so they will follow…
Portland Bight is an area of water and protected coastline about 1.5 hours drive outside of Kingston. In 1999 the Jamaican government designated the area as a marine sanctuary to protect a wide variety of endemic species including birds, reptiles, and freshwater and marine life. I had already learnt a little about local conservation efforts through the very interesting blog posts of my new friend, Emma Lewis, writer and blogger, Petchary, on her blog at https://petchary.wordpress.com. I had followed her posts for about a year before we arrived in Kingston, after searching for interesting Jamaican bloggers who could teach me more about our future home. Latham was looking for a subject for his new documentary and Emma kindly introduced him to the wonderful staff at C-CAM (the Caribbean Costal Area Management Foundation), an organization that works tireless to keep the Portand Bight waters protected, to educate local fishermen on the importance of protecting their waters, and help them find new, sustainable ways of making an income through activities such as ecotourism. Its an uphill battle, but they are making headway and Emma’s blog offers much interesting further reading on the sanctuary’s challenges:
Our day trip down to Portland Bight was less informed and very exploratory for two people who had just arrived in the country. C-CAM staff kindly gave Latham a tour of the area and an opportunity to meet some of the locals. We drove miles and miles down lonely, single-track roads through acres of dry coastal forest and scrub. The two-year drought had left the vegetation extremely brown, and C-CAM pointed out low-lying areas and swamp that had completely receded or dried out. As we drove around, we were flagged down by people who knew the truck. They reported problems or sightings: distressed or dead animals, or conflict on over illegal harvesting in the forest. On a nearby beach, a fisherman reported seeing a dead crocodile.
It was extraordinary to tour the area with an environmentalist. We saw the day-to-day challenges that the organization faced, and the story of the local fishermen’s struggle started to form in Latham’s mind. I’m sure a post will follow on his documentary, which is in post-production now. The trip left me with a first impression of the real Jamaica, an appreciation of the work that C-CAM does, and a desire to go back and learn more.
One of the best things about discovering a new country are the many road trips that it takes to find your favourite places. This involves kissing a few location frogs along the way, but its part of the excitement of adopting a new place. Fresh off the boat, there’s so much you don’t know, so you just have to pick a place and go and give it a try.
We picked Treasure Beach, an area on the South West coast of Jamaica, about 2-3 hours drive west from Kingston. We were told it had a low key vibe, unlike the north coast party towns, and was a better choice for people like us who like a simpler less commercial atmosphere.
The drive turned out to be the biggest part of the adventure. Our GPS got very confused when we drove on new, unchartered roads. “Michelle” freaked out a bit and found us an alternative way down to the coast and we listened to her. Big mistake! She took us on increasingly smaller roads until we arrived on the smallest, overgrown, underpaved, pot-hole encrusted back road ever…which stretched on for 30 kilometers with no turn offs. A flat tire or car problem of some description would have been a disaster with no one and nothing to assist for a very long stretch. Fortunately, nothing bad did happen, but lesson learned. Michelle only knows the destination and nothing of the conditions she’s taking us through. We arrived at our hotel a little later than planned as the detour added at least one hour to the trip.
Treasure Beach turned out to be as laid back as described – possible more so. I’m not sure if it was because it was off season (although many rooms were already booked when I tried to find a hotel) or whether its always like that…but there were few people around and not a lot going on. There were vendors looking for a sale, but they weren’t obnoxious and we mostly had the beach and restaurants to ourselves.
We ate at Frenchman’s Reef restaurant both nights. Very laid back, ok food, and it clearly had a regular local clientele. The most compelling thing about it was there were no less than 30 signs saying “No ganja smoking”: on the walls, on little stands on the tables, on the doors, pasted to the pillars and painted in three foot high letters on the outside wall…in three different places. Yet the air was thick with it. Either they couldn’t read or were too stoned to care! I really wanted to take a picture of four guys leaned up against the big “no ganja smoking” wall, who were dragging on a joint without a care in the world. However, I didn’t have the nerve!
Instead I took a few pictures of the beach and hotel to give a feel for the place. Here’s a little glimpse of the area:
It was a decent first trip out. I’d like to go back to Treasure Beach and stay at somewhere a little fancier. Not fancy, but perhaps a little more comfortable. Maybe somewhere with that shaded veranda that I always covet?
Pretty much anywhere I go in Kingston – out my door, across the parking lot at work, or the supermarket – omnipresent in the background are the city’s moody green hills. On a sunny day they are often clear and bright, then the mists roll in suddenly and their tops are obscured for a few minutes before the mist drifts off elsewhere. On cloudy days you can see a storm coming and we wait to see if it will roll down into the Kingston lowlands or head out to sea. When the rain comes, it can come down hard.
Kathmandu’s hills and mountains were far more dramatic, but we rarely saw them because of the intense smog. They were astounding when they appeared, just a few days per year, but I really love the rolling Kingston hills more, as are always there to greet me when I head outside and remind me that we are on a tropical island.
The air in the hills is cooler and there are several nice spots to enjoy lunch and a glass of wine. We have every intention of taking advantage!