Culture clash at Bath Fountain
When chik-V attacked me last September, I started going to the Rockfort Mineral Bath every week. The water was therapeutic, but it wasn't warm. I kept thinking I really should go to Bath Fountain where the water is extremely hot. But it was a long drive away. So I just settled for Rockfort.
On one visit, I met a woman who told me an amusing story about her experience at Bath. She had gone with a group of friends and, as soon as they arrived, they were swarmed by a large number of aggressive guides, eager to take them to the fountain.
She did wonder about the chaotic approach, especially since she thought there was an established hotel at Bath. Anyhow, her group trustingly set off over a bridge and along a narrow path up the hillside. It seemed quite precarious, but she decided to go with the flow.
They continued up and then down to a stream, which was not what she expected. At this point, I said, "Then you didn't ask where the hotel was?" We both laughed. Anyhow, as I remember it, she and her friends had the full spa treatment: mud pack, massage and water therapy. They hadn't negotiated a fee for the service and it was at the time of payment that she realised her mistake.
She was given an exorbitant bill, perhaps because she's white. She cuss some breed of Jamaican bad word and the price came down rapidly. Her guides had assumed she was a foreigner and would pay the tourist rate. She certainly set them straight.
BATHING IN MONEY
There was a time when Bath Fountain was a major international attraction. It still gets a fair number of foreign visitors, but not on the scale that it should. The people of St Thomas could be bathing in money if this natural resource could be developed to its full potential.
According to oral history, it was a runaway from plantation slavery, known only as Jacob, who discovered the healing fountain. He had been suffering from sores on his legs and, after soaking his body regularly in the water, he was cured. Foolishly or not, he told his 'master', Colonel Stanton, about the magical water.
In 1699, Stanton sold the property on which the spring was located to the colonial government. More than a thousand acres! By the early 18th century, the healing waters attracted major private-sector investment. Wealthy patrons built homes nearby and the village of Bath was soon established. A hospital, lodging house and billiard-room catered to the elite who visited the fountain.
Ironically, this wealthy resort sprang up because of a runaway. I don't know if Jacob was ever rewarded for sharing his knowledge. And, in a sense, the class divide between Jacob and the elite patrons of the fountain in the early years is evident in the culture clash today between the informal guides and the official operators of the government-owned fountain.
Two Sundays ago, I went to Bath. And, yes, I did go into the hotel. But I had the usual experience in the public parking lot. Before I could get out of the car, the guides descended. One of them even followed me into the hotel's parking lot, offering his services.
It seems as if these unconscionable guides do not want anybody to visit the hotel. They waylay patrons and try to spirit them away. Close to the police station in Bath, which is still a little distance from the hotel, a woman who said she worked at the fountain offered her services. I doubt she's really a hotel employee. And from as far away as Port Maria, informal tour operators have the system locked.
The hotel's general manager, Mr Desmond Blair, has been desperately trying to find a way to peacefully coexist with the informal guides. There are about 40 of them, and he knows they make a decent living. He doesn't want to box bread out of anybody's mouth.
And some visitors do like the outdoor experience. I've been to the stream and it does have a vibe. But you have to be careful about unskilled masseurs. A woman called the hotel complaining about back pain. She had done a hot-stone treatment and got quite a hot blow from a stone. Of course, all Mr Blair could tell her was that she had done the massage at her own risk. And she wasn't even a hotel guest.
I thoroughly enjoyed the hot water in the wide, deep private bath in the hotel. Some poor patrons don't even know about this option. They don't get a chance to choose. And the price of the bath is really quite reasonable. It's only $500 for 20 minutes in the potent water.
What Mr Blair is proposing is that there should be two quite separate attractions, the hotel and the stream. About half a mile below the present hotel entrance, a bridge could be built across the river, creating a route directly down to the stream. Tour guides would be given training and licensed to do business.
The informal operators are not likely to agree to this system. They wouldn't be able to capture patrons going to the hotel. It's the same old story: a clash between short-term benefits and long-term development. We need a bath to heal this dysfunctional culture.