Jamaica: Kingston & The Blue Mountains

Nick and I piled into a minibus, larger than the one we took from Montego Bay, and bisected the island en route to Kingston.  Ochi had served us well, but it was time to seek out adventure in a new locale, and that would be the Blue Mountains.  The road through to the southern side of the island twisted and turned through the jungle, but only required a couple hours to get us to our destination.  We got off at the capitol city’s central market, which was packed with locals selling their fruits, cock soup, clothing, and whatever else you could imagine.  We knew roughly where we needed to get to, but the zombie hoard of shady taxi drivers closing in had us running to the nearby constabulary patrol who then redirected us to the city bus.  The market was crowded and very authentic.  I bought some spices, bags of purple flower juice, and local fruits.  The green ginnups have a sweet taste and bizarre consistency.  The ackee however needed to be boiled before it could be eaten, so we just skipped out on this national staple.

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The large city bus got dropped us at a hub to the east of the city where small vans were waiting to haul us into the mountains.  There was a bit of a wait while it filled up, but once at capacity we rolled an hour or so into the lush green jungle.  The distance that we needed to cover was no so great measured as the crow flies, but the abundance of blind corners and circuitous routes extended our travel time significantly.  It was no matter though, we were just hoping to get as far as possible before dark.  There were a number of settlements that we had to reach, each offering a set of vans that would bring us to deeper one.  One guy wanted to charge us 25 dollars each to take us directly to the hostel we had booked, which we knew was a rip off,  Being men, we opted to go on our own.  Pleased to have each other’s company whilst wending our way, we left the illuminated area and slipped into the night.  Nick contemplated picking up a machete, just in case it proved necessary (it didn’t).  Shacks like these lined single lane roads, often sitting precariously along the cliffs.

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While tracing the roads on the Google Maps I had pre-loaded, a van came upon us and foretold that we would find a truck waiting for us at the next outcropping of houses.  They had kindly told the guy and his daughter that we were coming, and to wait for us.  We hustled over to indeed find a truck which let us hop in the back for just a small sum.  We got bucked around as it navigated uneven dirt roads, but some sore coccyges was a small price to pay.  This was a moment of deep satisfaction for the two of us: we had succeeded in taking the road less traveled thanks to the help of complete strangers, and now had this vibrant memory of plunging into the Jamaican highlands.  There was something special about all the different pieces came together to let this work.  After a bit we arrived to the even deeper village of Hagley Gap, which was little more than a few shacks surrounding a tavern, which was where we would wait with (6 Ws!) some Red Stripes while our ride to the Jah B’s Hostel came to pick us up.  This was our view out the back of the truck, aided by a flash.

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After a short while our ride rolls up, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the same guy we had turned down way back before.  Irksome indeed, but despite getting this far we were at his mercy, as we had no idea where to go.  They still robbed us of the 25 each to go just the last bit of the way, but the experience we garnerd from going it alone to Hagley Gap made that cost much easier to stomach, versus paying it straight away.  We were just ready to be settled in, as it had been a long day of nodes and transfers.  True Blue coffee indeed.

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We were at a Rastafarian’s home for the night, and he set us up with a decent bed, but in typical Jamaican extortionist fashion made sure to kill us on nearly every amenity.  Dinner? 10 US dollars each, for a simple meal of rice and beans that could not have cost more than a few cents to cook (Rastas are strictly vegetarian).  Our plan was to hike to the peak of the country the following day, but when he mentioned how catching the sunrise is best from the top, we decided to nap a couple hours and then set out that night.  Flashlight? 5 dollars.  You didn’t bring water? 5 dollars.  Oh, you want me to show you where the trail head is? (Obviously, why else would anyone even come up here…) 10 dollars.  The only thing that came gratis was a cup of the freshest Blue Mountain coffee one could ever drink.  He grew it, roasted it, ground it, and brewed it, all on site.

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After begrudgingly shelling out, he led us up to the start of the trail, which with a bit of verbal direction would have been well within our capacity to locate on our own.  And then, there were two.  Nick and I were hiking along at a good clip, marveling all along the way at the incredible translucence of the night sky and the swathes of stars.  It took us a couple of hours to near the summit, and we could feel it become much cooler.  This was partially due to the elevation of course – the mountain is 2,256 meters high – but also the thick blanket of fog that decided to roll in and obfuscate our once fantastic view.  This was certainly more typical of my mountain hiking experiences…I shouldn’t have expected anything better this time around.  At one point we came across a rat, leading Nick to dance some sort of jig, drop his sole sustenance, and then crush it.  It was a difficult moment.

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In addition to the cold clamminess and misting precipitation that awaited us up there, the wind too was gusting.  There were nearly two hours before the sun was slated to peek above the horizon, so our only thought was to seek shelter.  We expected nothing but actually managed to located a ramshackle building to cower in.  The roof had gaping holes in it, so the elements still chilled us to the bone, but blasts of wind weren’t as direct and I did somehow manage to sleep on the damp concrete floor.  I awoke shivering uncontrollably and entirely unpleasant.  We were genuinely suffering, and let ourselves draw closer and closer to each other, forgoing the usual preferences of personal space in exchange for warmth/survival.  It got weird.

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The most disappointing aspect was that for all our efforts and mental fortitude, there was no sunrise to be enjoyed.  T’was our ‘green beacon’ that inspired us to fight on, but our only reward was an ambiguous lightening of the sky.  We eventually decided that that was all there would be, so we made a break for the warmth of lower altitudes.  With a bit more light, it was possible to see what we were pent up in.  I’m sure that we would not have lasted atop that mountain without this refuge.

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Climbing down the mountain seemed to take longer than the hike up, as it always does, and my legs were certainly growing weary.  Each step added to an accumulating ache and burn in my thighs, but at least the scenery was something that we could enjoy in a new way.  It was incredible how much the night had concealed on our trek up.  This whole area was an Elvin Forrest, which are those at higher elevations and characterized by a great deal of moss draped from everywhere.  I had seen something like this in the Malaysian Highlands as well.

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On the way down we realized we had also marched through a lot of coffee plantations that the night had not permitted us to explore.  I had never seen a coffee plant before, and it was really quite interesting to see what they looked like.  I always get a kick out of seeing how the products I interact with on a daily basis are grown and sourced; a cocoa plantation would be another that I hope to check out someday.  These green fruits weren’t yet ready for harvesting, not until they turn red.

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Back at the hostel, having accomplished all that we wanted to do in the Blue Mountains, it was deemed time to mosey on down from this money pit.  With a can-do determination stemming from what we had just accomplished, we declined their kind, 25 dollar offer to bring us back.  They probably thought we were idiots, but we weren’t going to give them the satisfaction of milking us further.  This actually played out well though, because we came across a truck of guys going all the way down to Kingston who offered to let us jump in the back for whatever we deemed a fair price.  We took in the sights of the valley, villages, and local life while snaking down and down.  I didn’t realize just how deep into the mountains we had actually made it the night before.  There were a lot of avocado trees catching my eye, which also tickled my produce curiosity.  Waving back at the students on their way to school was fun.

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Skipping ahead a bit, we arrived at our Kingston hostel, and truly felt like this was the right sort of place to stay.  It was a welcome sight to see guests from all over, offering a venue for the varied conversations I so enjoy.  There was fun atmosphere where we could embrace the leisure of holiday, and the luxury of AC.  Something that really made this hostel stand out compared to any other that I’ve stayed in was the authentic meal they prepared for us every night.  This really gave me a sense of Jamaican cuisine beyond jerk chicken, and inspired me to try my hand at cooking some as well.  I bought a couple packs of salt mackerel, green bananas, and ginger beer at the store and was keen to see if I could actually turn it into something edible.  With the help of one of the maids, I was taught how to properly peel and boil the bananas, and also also how to prepare the fish.  When it was all said and done, our meal consisted of bland fruit and unbearably salty fish – just they way they like it.

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One of our days there involved a day trip to Port Royal, which was once a pirate fortress and de facto capital of the Caribbean.  The stronghold was razed by an earthquake in 1692 after which its importance declined significantly.  A few people do live out there though.  Once our bus arrived, we set about walking around the little area.  There was a fortress that we admired from the outside, and decided a 10 dollar tour wasn’t particularly worth it.  I did make sure to read all of the signs though, and was pretty impressed to know that both Captain Morgan and Admiral Nelson spiced rums were named after people whose legacy is based here.  Blackbeard the Pirate was another recognizable name from the lore of this place.  Sorry, I had to use this photo.

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We walked around, trying to make as much of the trip as possible, and indeed there were some photogenic spots to be found.  Another thing that we gave a whirl was festival, a stale and ever so slightly sweetened doughnut popular in Jamaica.  They required a great deal of saliva to soften up, and it took a long while of chewing before we could swallow it down.   It didn’t really take us too much time before we had ‘done it’, and we hopped on a bus just as it was beginning to rain.

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There was one exchange in particular that really left a mark on my time there.  I had known going in that Jamaica was one of the world’s most homophobic countries, but getting on the bus I had a chance to witness this firsthand.  A guy waiting was dressed very effeminately, and as soon as he got on people started to point and laugh, calling him a disgrace repeatedly to his face.  Beyond just this verbal abuse, he had horrendous Joker-esq scars that extended from the corners of his mouth halfway to his ears.  It was difficult as an outside observer to witness that, and see just how disgusting humanity can be.  People are free to whatever opinions they please, but actually treating any other individual in this way is disgraceful.  I imagine that none on the fence about their sexuality would subject themselves to such persecution, and instead opt to simply conform.

On a lighter note…Nick and I went over to a museum to take in an exhibit on Rastafarianism, which was extremely informative.  We had our own personal guide speak to the history and beliefs of its adherents.  As she described, Rastafarianism is akin religion and in fact based on Christianity, but they don’t like to consider it as such.  There was a lot of information on reggae music – Bob Marley’s of course, but other artists too – and it actually brought me a lot of understanding of the meaning behind the lyrics I already knew.  One of the most interesting takeaways was an understanding of their belief of Haile Selassie as the reincarnated messiah to deliver those of African origins.  This Ethiopian king passed away in only 1975, and people took his legitimacy from being of the line of Judea.  This is why the Lion of Judea is an important Jamaican symbol, as seen on the cup of coffee above.  I know that I’m doing a really nonacademic job of elucidating, but Wikipedia would bridge the gap for those those so inclined.

Hanging around the hostel was good fun, which as I mentioned had significantly more character than the others we’d been at.  One of the guests that we spent some time with was a Japanese guy who had come for music.  Unfortunately English was really tough for him, and he didn’t have the confidence to explore other parts of the country as we had, so we made sure to include him in our local excursions.  In the evenings he, Nick, and I had a great time drinking a bit of Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum mixed with their grapefruit soda, and chatting with fellow travelers.  One moment that had me in stitches was when he friend tried emulating one of my party tricks: releasing butane from a lighter into my mouth, and blowing it into a flame to create a fireball.  During his attempt, he exhaled a bit too gingerly, causing the flame to trace the gas back and singe his lips.  I witnessed every moment of this absolute failure, as if in slow motion.  He was a good sport about it though, and even ventured to try again.  Here we have much of the crew that we walked around with.

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Our days in Kingston were significantly slower than had been those at the beginning, but that was perfect.  After first arriving to a country, I hit the ground running to see and do as much as possible.  I’m much more of a traveler than vacationer, though, I understand the importance that there be some combination of both.  I’ll never pay good money to sit solely on some generic resort beach, while the true character of the country sits outside its fabricated bubble, but also I’m not about to deny how nice a day or two of that can be.  For this first trip in many moons, I certainly satisfied my needs, and developed a great sense of appreciation for this island nation of Jamaica.  The culture here was manifold and distinct, and left me with a generous return on my financial investment.  One love, mon.
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