After traveling for fifteen hours with ten pieces of luggage and an airplane change, normally I’d feel dragged out, tired and cranky. But when the wheels hit the tarmac in Miami I was all at once energized and happy – because I was a mere three hours from being home.
I’m pretty ritualistic by nature. As soon as I got off the plane in Miami I was on auto-pilot: I headed to the nearest bathroom to change into my “Jamaica Clothes” – sundress, flip flops and stuffed the long pants, long sleeved shirt and hoodie deep into the recesses of our carry-on suitcase. I learned a long time ago how much it sucked to drive the one and a half hours to Negril covered from head to toe.
After landing in Montego Bay and making the long trek to immigration next to the non-operation people movers we were in and out of there and customs within 20 minutes. No meet and greet service needed here! We stood on the curb with our ten pieces of luggage and kept a keen eye out for the silly bus.
After a few minutes a sedan pulled up and a familiar gravelly voice yelled out, “Hey!” There was Niah, but this was in no way the silly bus. Before I could even get my first “hello” out I said, “You have got to be kidding!” My mind then raced through plans B through Z trying to figure out how exactly we were going to get ourselves and our stuff to Negril.
My friend Suzette calls Jamaicans the “MacGuyvers” of the world. My friend Peg calls Jamaica the “land of make-do”. Jamaicans are remarkably gifted at fixing things with other random things and they are the masters of fitting the square peg in the round hole. So, within five minutes we were on the road, the car stuffed with luggage and Les and I placed carefully in between. With no stops we were entering the yard at 1:00pm. That same magic sedan then turned around, Les in the passenger seat and went to accomplish the next feat of fitting all of our stuff in storage back in the car, with Les – then back to the yard. Mission accomplished.
Our first week in town is what I like to call our “do it” week. We set up the house, unpack, put away, hang art and move furniture around. After our first blissful sleep in our rock-hard bed shortly after we wake up the next morning we called Niah and began our errands.
We went to the hardware store and got a piece of foam in what is always a successful attempt to make our bed a bit cushier and comfortable. Next stop was to visit the “guy” that unlocks IPhones. Les had his IPhone 3G unlocked and ready to accept a Jamaican SIM card. Unlocked IPhone in hand, we headed to the Digicel store to get our new SIM cards for our three phones and load them up with both local and international minutes? What’s this? Finish? Denied…we would have to wait a few days until the SIM cards came in. (Which they didn’t, which is why we are now LIME customers).
We are always prepared for that initial outlay of money to set up the house. I always arrive to an empty kitchen so I’m always psyched to get it stocked up. We hit all three markets in town: ValueMaster for cleaning products, the “Green Store” for produce and HiLo for everything else from toilet paper to spices. Its a tiring day but rewarding – especially for me who gets to organize everything with care then mess it all up again to prepare our evening meal.
The rest of the week was pretty chill. A routine was established fairly quickly. I would wake up before the sun, grab a book and sit with my freshly brewed cup of coffee reading and gazing out at the sea.
Roberta and I pick up from where we left off last season, taking our morning walks at around 8:00am. This year the sun seems especially hot and bright so we altered. We’d walk south from Roberta’s yard until we’d come to the new lane/culdesac off the road, walk up there with a quick jaunt through the bush alongside a chicken far. We’d exit the bush on Hylton Ave. and walk back down waving hello and saying good morning to our neighbors as we strolled. The loop would deposit me back at my gate, and from there I’d resume my patio sit, read my book and gaze out at sea until the sun became too hot. Inside for breakfast and if needed a bit of work in my make-shift office in the bedroom, french doors flung open for the view and breeze from the sea.
No rest for the weary though – we had a birthday party to plan. Roberta and Peg hatched the plan before I arrived and we were going to have a triple-threat birthday party at our yard, poolside to celebrate Roberta, Rusty and Les’ birthdays all at once. Meantime though, we needed to celebrate Roberta’s birthday. We did that at Canoe.
We did this at Canoe, our favorite place for Caesars and a little “cliff side” beach atmosphere. Just a few of us – Roberta, Peg, Damian and I to start, Les joining shortly. We enjoyed our Caesars, laughed and enjoyed each others company. I got fully caught up on the how’s why’s and wherefore’s of Negril in general; getting caught up on what our friends were up to and the political and ecological matters that always arise when sitting with a group of expats drinking. Our party spilled over to Mary’s Bay where the SeaWind band was rehearsing and our friends Rambo, Sabine and Ken were waiting for more celebration. While the band was just wrapping up when we arrived they did a rousing version of the Happy Birthday Song for Roberta before they packed up.
Saturday was party day! It was a pot-luck BYOB affair so I picked up some conch from the fish market and fixin’s for Caesars as our contribution. I prepared my dish the night before, carefully cleaning the conch and using the white meat for Conch Ceviche. Les would use the tougher dark meat for fritters the next day. I thinly sliced the conch and combined it with finely chopped sweet pepper, onion and tomato, salt, pepper and a good sprinkly of fresh time. I topped that mixture off with a healthy dose of fresh key-lime juice and let it marinate overnight. I got rave reviews – “off the hook” was one lovely compliment. My Jamaican friends would not touch it but boy did they love Les’ conch fritters!
That Saturday afternoon we opened the front gate, tied up the doors and welcomed our guests – friends and neighbors from all over Negril. The Potluck offerings were as usual, amazing with everything from home made salsa, creamy Pumpkin Dip (courtesy of Roberta) Ackee and Cheese and lovely skewered sausages with two dipping sauces. The buffet was laid out in the palapa as our friends reveled in the bright sunshine eating, drinking and enjoying each other.
Different folks wear different badges of honor when they travel. They might hike or bike to an undiscovered cool-ass location, they might take pride in the fact that they can rent a vehicle and drive around like a local, no matter how treacherous the conditions. For me, its all about food. I’m all about shopping for local and seasonal produce, the freshest fish straight from the fisherman or the freshly chicken raised by a neighbor. So when the farmer’s market is in Negril, I’m so ready to be there as early as possible to get the pick of the best.
The farmers market is put together by RADA, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority. Established in 1990 their mission is to promote the development of agriculture in Jamaica as to the main engine of growth in rural communities. Farmers come from all over the island so we’ll often see the odd mango or pear that is out of season for us in Westmoreland but still in season in St. Thomas. On the consumer side, the prices are set by RADA so that the vendors don’t need to compete at that level and we do not have to worry about being overcharged for a pineapple. At my visit that Wednesday I left with four bags of fruit and veg, enough to fill my fridge for a week. That night I used a delightfully bright orange pumpkin that melted right in with the Irish potato mash I was preparing giving those old fogey mashed potatoes a silky pumpkiny flavor that elevated my latest recipe for brown stew fish.
For the fish, I had bought some fresh flillets of Butter Fish and seared them off with a crispy crust in some hot oil and then set them aside. Using a bit more oil I added a teaspoon or so of Jamaican brown sugar, browning the sugar for under a minute. I then added my chopped onion and garlic, cooked that until soft and then added the chopped sweet pepper, tomato and carrot along with a bit of water to stew down. I fried up some pre-made Bammy and lined the serving plate with that, topping it with the fish and then the sauce. Pumpkin mash on the side and it was a dinner fit for a bounty from the market.
As our second week drew to a close and Les’ birthday drew near we dcieded to rent our Honda Shadow for the first of what would be many times this trip. Les and I went out on a short solo ride so that he could get the feel of the bike and roads again after a nine month absence from both. We rode backroads up and over Mt. Airy and through Redground. At my urging we stopped at the cemetery in Redground. Since visiting Pere la Chaise in Paris I’ve become very interested in memorials to the dead. The cemetery in Redground is a small community cemetery, much like ours in Bodega. In Jamaica there is no such thing as “perpetual care” but the cemetery and its grave sites were very well kept. Every culture has their own tradition surrounding the death ritual and how their dead are memorialized. In Redground many of the grave sites and headstones were brightly painted with the deceased’s name and date, thoughts and images that reflect in some way their life and/or their passing. Metal sculpture of flowers, trees and birds surrounded one site; a Jamaican flag adorned another, its headstone with Marijuana leaves painted on it and the words “Ghetto Life” painted on there too. I picked up a handful of small stones and as I took photos of each site that caught my eye I left a stone there, taking a minute to wish the occupant of that grave peace in their after-life. This is a Jewish tradition that I inserted into my cemetery photography ritual from the first photo I took of a grave at Pere La Chaise.
During those first couple of weeks in Negril my life is about settling back in, getting into some routine or another and breathing deeply with each sunset that I watch from the back of my house. I’m feeling fat with time and ready to take in the many more weeks in my wonderland that are ahead of me.