Kevin O'Brien Chang
Help me big up Jamaica
The land of wood and water
The systems might no proper
But we love the vibes the food and the culture
Woi, can't you see
The beauty of this country
Me never know a serious thing
Until me reach a foreign
What a nice place fi live, sweet Jamdown
The only problem is, too much gun a run
- Sweet Jamdown by Tony Rebel
Well, there may be more enjoyable excursions than a leisurely drive through the Jamaican countryside on a Sunday afternoon, but short of entering paradise it is hard to imagine one. Especially if you start out from Negril.
Every time I go for a swim on that glorious seven-mile beach and bask in the mild crystal-blue water, I marvel at my luck in living a country where this kind of magical experience is available every day of the year. Sure, not everyone can afford an all-inclusive. But anyone with gas money or bus fare has access to the powder-white sand.
Actually, I do not go there nearly often enough, and every time I do I mentally kick myself for not coming more often. Like everything else that is easily accessible it is always, 'Cho, next week'. But I know on my deathbed one of my great regrets is going to be not visiting Negril every time I had the chance.
And though it took over five years to finish and cost way more than it should have, the 'highway' from Negril to Montego Bay is one marvellous drive, easy on the mind and eye. It makes you wonder why all Jamaican roads are not as smooth and well planned. It is certainly a great contrast to parts of the journey from Montego Bay to Mandeville, where some sections have you cursing the Ministry of Roads with every jolt.
Indeed, in an area called Haddo the roads were so potholed and bumpy that everyone in the car started to wonder which Member of Parliament had allowed this to happen in his constituency.
'Who is your mp?'
Out of curiosity we stopped at a roadside stand and asked who the MP was. Nobody knew. We drove on and asked again. And again. But everyone just shrugged their shouldersin a don't-care manner.
Finally, somebody volunteered 'I think is Karl Blythe. But dem nuh value we in this area'. Well, if it is Dr. Blythe, he is retiring. But in a sensible democracy the party responsible for letting the roads reach this state - and this is supposedly a main thoroughfare linking two major tourist areas - should not get a single vote in the Haddo area. But no doubt in the next election the 'born orange' voters will still mark the head, just as in a reverse situation the 'born green' counterparts would still mark the bell.
It is a mysterious thing, Jamaican democracy. So many bad roads and a world-leading murder rate would not in most places merit 18 straight years of power. Clearly, we are an easily-satisfied bunch, content with 'more car, more phone, more gal'. With all our problems, life on the whole seems pretty good for most. But can you imagine how wonderful things would be if we got rid off potholes and got crime under control?
Thankfully, the roads improved and we could desist from lambasting politicians and return to marvelling at the fantastically beautiful Jamaican countryside with its thousand shades of greenery and stunning vistas round every corner. I am no world traveller. But it's mighty difficult to conceive of a more consistently lovely land.
Or in the words of Mr. Rebel:
'Woi, can't you see
The beauty of this country
Me never know a serious thing
Until me reach a foreign'
Because most Jamaicans think the whole world looks and feels like here, and don't realise 'til they go abroad that they grew up in maybe the prettiest island God ever made. I lived in Canada for a while and have been home for 18 years now. But I still find myself regularly marvelling out loud at how gorgeous this place is. And snowy winters sure teach you the hard way not to take warm tropical sunshine for granted!
An enchanted isle
Yet, it is not only the beauty and balmy weather that makes this so often an enchanted isle. There is a certain character,a uniqueness reflected in the way traditions are so resilient here. Take Middle Quarters, for instance, where people have been selling pepper shrimps since Busta and Norman were boys. In most places the roadside trade would have either died out with modernisation or been replaced by shiny plastic McDonald-like places selling tasteless replications of what used to be there.
But at Middle Quarters you see the same types of bandana higglers with their plastic bowls selling the same utterly delicious shrimps that their grandmothers and great grandmothers did 50 years ago - or so old-timers tell me.
In fact, the 'swimps' only whetted our appetite for our next destination, 'Little Ochi', the world-famous fish restaurant on the beach in Alligator Pond. My visiting cousin from California had only been there once, three years ago, but coming for her honeymoon last month had called months in advance to remind us that regardless of whatever else was planned, we better make sure we took her to 'Little Ochi' again.
Sometimes your memory of a place can idealise it and make it difficult to live up to expectations the second time around. But Little Ochi is not one of these, as my cousin beamingly testified.
It has the kind of ambience which can only be experienced and not described. It is sure no luxury palace. A camera snapshot would only reveal a collection of brightly-coloured but slightly run down shacks on a nondescript dark sand beach. Rather unremarkable and nothing to write home about, one might think.
Every foreigner raves
But every foreigner I know who has been there simply raves about the place. The food is definitely one factor: fresh from the sea fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, conch cooked how you want it - fried, steamed, curried, jerked - and all delicious. And, unlike so many places in Jamaica that start off well and go downhill, it has stayed that way for donkey years. Owner Everal 'Blackie' Christian's secret? "No absentee ownership for me man. I'm always here. That's the only way to ensure quality control."
But what makes Little Ochi so special is the atmosphere which, like so much of Jamaica, embraces just enough modernity but retains a truly authentic rustic charm. It's a vibe that welcomes people from every conceivable class, colour and country, and makes all feel completely at home. Local fishermen, foreign tourists, visiting Kingston tycoons all mix with the greatest of completely unself-conscious ease.
On the beach were children and old folk rocking to the beat as a sound system started with ska and went through rocksteady to reggae and roots right up to dancehall. And as we sat there licking our fingers in the fading sun to the sounds of Toots and Gregory and Shabba, my thoughts were "Well, maybe one day global warming might put an end to places like this. But thank you Lord, I am alive now and able to enjoy it." And when the deejay put on Tony Rebel, how could we not help him big up Sweet Jamdown?