On a dull and overcast day in San Francisco, my friend Ron informs me that he has decided to spend the upcoming holidays with his family in Jamaica and asks if I would like to come along. After months of unremittingly grey weather, I do not need much persuasion to head for sunnier climes. A week later, we are on a flight to Kingston.
Ron’s sister, Estelle, is waiting for us when we walk out of Manley airport, after an eight-hour-long flight. We settle into the backseat of her 4-by-4 and set off on a two-lane highway running parallel to the sparkling azure waters of the Caribbean.
With 2.8 million people, Jamaica is the third-most populous Anglophone country in the Americas, after the United States and Canada. Kingston, the capital, is located on the south-eastern coast of the island. It has two major sections: ‘downtown’ and ‘uptown,’ also referred to as ‘New Kingston’. Ron’s parents reside in a comfortable villa in the affluent part of town. He has three siblings: a brother and two sisters including Estelle. They are a Mullato family, and like many Jamaicans have white, black, Indian and Chinese blood coursing through their veins, making for a striking combination.
The following morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, we set off on a trip to the Blue Mountains, Jamaica’s longest mountain range, to visit a friend of Ron’s who runs a coffee plantation in the region. The area is known for the famous Blue Mountain Coffee, which commands premium prices on world markets. About thirty minutes later, we leave the flats and start chugging up into the hills. The road is scooped out of the rock as if by hand. It seems barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two passing from opposite ways. We drive around numerous hairpin turns and are constantly bouncing on potholes. Just when it seems like the road couldn’t get any worse, it turns to dirt. Finally, after two hours of driving, we arrive at the plantation.
Daniel is a grizzled, serene-looking Rastafarian dressed in loose white clothing, with a beard and long dreadlocks collected under a white turban. He greets us with hugs. “Holy Emmanuel I Selassie I Jah I Rastafari. Welcome to my humble abode” he says with a beaming smile. We climb the steps of the porch and seat ourselves on a long bench running along the verandah. The large two-story wooden home is painted in white and brown and has a rooftop terrace with panoramic views of the mist-shrouded peaks and deep valleys encircling it.
A tall white woman with blonde dreadlocks comes out with a tray bearing fresh fruit and steaming mugs of coffee. She introduces herself as Gretchen, Daniel’s wife. Three children ranging from ages four to ten are trailing her. I look around and can’t help but notice dozens of tall marijuana plants growing wild all around the house. Then it strikes me. We are smack in the middle of a cannabis plantation. Daniel notices my gaze and explains that he grows both coffee and cannabis on this piece of land. He cultivates coffee for export while the cannabis is strictly for personal use.
As night descends on the mountain, he builds a bonfire on a grassy knoll behind the house. We huddle around as he lights a clay pipe.
Daniel belongs to the ‘Bobo Ashanti’ sect of Rastafarianism, one of the more orthodox lineages within the larger movement. Bobos take their name from the Asante tribe in Africa, the original source of the majority of slaves in Jamaica. Several well-known Bobo Reggae artists have passed through Daniel’s home including Sizzla Kalonji, Capleton, Anthony B and Ras Shiloh.
The next day arrives bright and clear, and after a meal of watermelon and pineapple, we bid our hosts adieu. Estelle is in the driver’s seat as usual. We head towards Trench Town.
Trench Town was notorious for political gang violence during the seventies, forcing Marley to leave after an assassination attempt. Sadly, not much has changed since then. Today it is carved up into different zones, each one controlled by a leader or ‘don’. Political parties created the gangs in the 1970s to rustle upvotes. The gangs have since turned to drug trafficking, but each remains closely tied to a political party. The hostility between these rival gangs and ensuing urban warfare has turned the area into one of the most dangerous places in the world.
We stop in front of an unassuming restaurant with ‘Jerk Chicken’, ‘Oxtail Soup’ and ‘Red Stripe Beer’ printed on the wall in large red letters. A group of kids are kicking around a soccer ball on the street. It’s nearly lunchtime and we have decided to stop for food. We order beers and two portions of each dish with salads on the side.
Jerk chicken is the de facto national dish of Jamaica; aromatic and smoky, sweet but insistently hot. All of its traditional ingredients grow in the island’s lush green interior: fresh ginger, thyme and scallions; Scotch bonnet peppers, cayenne peppers, black pepper, onion, garlic, nutmeg, paprika and cinnamon.
After lunch, we walk around the neighbourhood, strolling past hard-faced youths lounging in front of shacks boarded up with planks of wood. Boundary walls covered with elaborate street art proclaiming the glories of Bob Marley and Rasta culture mark the periphery. Clothes are hung up to dry on rickety poles joined by a plastic string. Dogs sniff around piles of smouldering garbage.
A white couple, clearly American, wearing brightly coloured Hawaiian shirts, stand in front of a statue of Bob Marley, having their picture taken by a local. They are grinning idiotically with hands upraised in a victory sign. We walk back to the jeep wordlessly.
Bob Marley’s voice blares out of the speakers as we drive towards the beach. Fittingly, the song is Trenchtown Rock, penned in the early seventies while he was living in the ghetto with his mother.
In the Third World, especially where liberation struggles were underway, Bob was seen as both a popular musician and a revolutionary ally. When Zimbabwe won its freedom from the white Rhodesian regime in 1980, the Wailers played at the independence celebration. Nesta, as he is affectionately known to his legions of fans, succumbed to a malignant strain of cancer while at the peak of his career and passed away at the age of 36 on May 11, 1981.
It is nearing sunset when we arrive at the beach. We sit on the white sand at the water’s edge and gaze at the setting sun, a perfect orb on the pink horizon shot through with streaks of gold and scarlet. I close my eyes and drift away to the sound of the water lapping at my feet.