ochi three ways in four days

For a change I think I'll blog in reverse chronological order. We returned very hot and sweaty from Ocho Rios this afternoon. We'd taken a mini-bus home, for a total of JA$400 (US$8). Though that seems like a bargain for a bus ride across the entire country (a cab for the same distance costs JA$3000 (US$60)), it was, in fact, a ripoff. Locals paid JA$125 each for the same trip. I am sure you can all imagine the nature of a cheap bus ride from the north coast to the south coast over the mountains, so I'll just mention that the little aisles of the minibus were bridged by planks so that people could sit in them, there were four to a row where three should have been, plus babies and luggage. The bus driver was not concerned, either by the groaning noises his little bus was making carrying such a heavy load, or by the steep drop-offs on one side of the bus as we raced around the narrow mountain turns, or by the other traffic, also proceeding in a high-speed, swerving fashion. But as you saw in my second sentence, all was well in the end. And for a ripoff, it was quite a bargain.

Rewind. Saturday at noon we got in a shared cab in the middle of Ochi to head up to Exchange to stay with Kush, a friend of Sarah Hsia's who she knows from when they were neighbors in Cambridge, MA. He'd told Wayne that if we got off at the Exchange Plaza, his place was right across the street. We got out with our suitcase and certainly looked a little bewildered. There was a vine-covered wall across the street, with a small gate in it, but no clear way to know if it was his place or not. After asking some people we discovered that he was known as Horace Smith in the area (we hoped it was him) and someone went and yelled at the gate for him. Kush is a rasta, and a spiritual type, who has returned to the home and beautiful property where he grew up in order to enjoy and experience nature. Wayne has been reading Walden and reading small parts to me aloud from time to time. My strongest impression while were there was of the similarity in the Kush's sentiments to those expressed by Thoreau in Walden--in particular the love of nature and deep connection to it, the desire to limit interpersonal contact, the simplicity of living style, and sense of humor. When entering the gate, one first encounters the house itself. It is quite large, dark and cool inside, a little bit run down, and smells of fruit and incense. Our room was one of four guest rooms, though it seems that they are quite rarely used. With a little creativity (such as using a large bucket to help refill the toilet in order to flush it) we were quite comfortable.

The amazing part of the property was not the house, but the grounds. Kush has 5 acres of hilly land covered with all manner of fruit trees arrayed around sunny lawns. It feels and smells wonderful and is great for exploring and walking. Right outside our room was a gigantic mango tree. There were several orange trees, grapefruits, limes, bananas, plaintains, and coconuts as well. In addition, there were trees of Jamaican fruits like ackee, sour sop, guava, and june plum. There were also trees with fruits we had never heard of before: nesberries, which are like a fig only sweeter, more delicate, and generally better, and custard apples, nothing like our apples with a soft white inside that you can squeeze or scoop out into your mouth and that somewhat resembles custard. Almost every tree had something edible on it, or could be used to make some kind of tea or coffee, or even for making medicines. Kush takes care of the entire property himself and largely subsists on what it produces. Of course it is exclusively fruit, so I left still somewhat at a loss for how he supports his other needs even in the very simple way that he lives. I took a lot of pictures, mainly of fruit, which cannot do the place justice, but I'll share them in any case. At least you'll get a sense of what a nesberry is.


Clockwise from top left: sour sop on the tree, an open nesberry (not sure about the spelling), nesberries on the tree, coconuts on the tree, a flower called coxcomb (again, not sure about the spelling), custard apples on the tree (i'm sorry I don't have a picture of the inside, but I'll add one in a future blog), and a pink flower I thought was pretty.

Kush's property is divided from what I will call a rural ghetto (for lack of a better name to describe it) by a cinderblock wall. Being among what I assume are a very small number of white visitors to the neighborhood, the kids on the other side of the wall were quite curious about us. They kept hitting their cricket ball over the wall, which seems to me to have been at least somewhat inadvertent, but Kush thought it was so they could get a peek at us. We went over by the wall to satisfy their curiosity a bit and within seconds a ball came over a few faces popped up. They told us they were playing cricket and asked us to come watch them. They tried to explain a few of the rules to us, getting me ever so slightly closer to understanding what is going on in the game. When we went over, they had quite a set up. They had bats made from planks, a tennis ball to play with, and cinder block wickets. In the background was a villiage of tiny shacks made of wood with corrugated tin roofs. Somewhere in there was a soundsystem that played loud, lively reggae and dancehall the entire time were were in Exchange. They were playing 3 big boys against 5 little ones, with two girls helping field whenever they felt like it. After a bit a woman came by and said hello. Hoping not to seem disrespectful by standing there watching the children, we explained they'd asked us to come. She asked where we were from and we said we were American but we lived in Kingston. She said, "I was going to offer to braid the lady's hair, but if you're not tourists, she won't want it."

Rewind. Friday evening when the conference ended, we had still had no chance to swim in the ocean or the many pools at the Renaissance Jamaica Grande. Nor had we been able to participate in any of the all-inclusive resort activities. Still, just from our small experiences eating the lunches and seeing the scene, we had had enough. We decided to head out into Ocho Rios to find some more appealing, more Jamaican food to eat. (More on the hotel's food philosophy later.) We walked out of the hotel to the main road and took a left. We walked a few hundred feet and then looked around and realized we were the only white people in sight. Apparently night life in Ocho Rios is not a major attraction for most tourists. We ended up on St. James Avenue at a restaurant called World of Fish. It is unassuming with a few outdoor tables and counter at which to order. I ordered jerk fish, callaloo, two dumplings, coconut water and a red stripe. Wayne got escoveitch fish, bammies, rice and peas, irish moss (a disgusting drink that supposedly makes you manly) and a red stripe. I only describe our orders in such detail because it was the best meal I can remember ever eating. I have no other way to describe it to you, but if you ever have a chance to go to Ocho Rios, or even to Jamaica, this restaurant is worth a trip. The experience was heightened by my satisfaction at not having eaten at the Jamaica Grande buffet or even their fancy Italian restaurant.

On Saturday morning we had our chance at the Jamaica Grande. We got our bathing suits on and headed to the beach. Although the beach itself was nothing too special, swimming in Turtle Bay was wonderful. The few hours of resort experience and lying in the sun was enough for me. After one sip of canned pineapple juice from concentrate and cheap coconut rum, I was ready to go. All in all I was quite disappointed by the Renaissance Jamaica Grande experience. Wayne and I had thought we might be able to get into the experience for a few days, especially since we were paid for by the conference. The hotel itself was not particularly nicer than any of the Kingston hotels, which is to say that it was fine. The room was clean and air conditioned but not anything special. The main idea of the resort seemed to be to provide an excess of activities, food and alcohol to guests, all with a mild "Jamaican culture" aspect to it. The drinks are a good exemplar of the general tone of things. At lunch the first day I tried to order june plum juice, assuming they would have the local juices. It turns out they only serve pineapple juice and cranberry juice, and those out of cans and made from concentrate. Rather than taking the opportunity to introduce guests to local produce (that I am sure they would try and like if given the chance) they feed people a fake version of what is supposed to be Jamaican. It seems to me to serve no ones interests. The drinks taste bad and are probably no less expensive than fresh local juices would be, Jamaican produce is not promoted to this audience that is primed to like it and that forms the base of a good international market. The food is similar. There are some bad, bland renditions of Jamaican dishes combined with very uninspired continental style food in great quantity. The entertainment is arguable the worst of all. It seems to be a sort of minstrel-like show of someone's idea of what foreigners might think Jamaican culture is like. Although we heard a few bad covers of Bob Marley songs, most of what we heard was calypso, soca, or covers of American music. There was very little Jamaican about it. All this leaves me feeling very disappointed in the resort experience. First, it is such a missed opportunity for Jamaica to truly show off some great indigenous produce and local music and culture. Second, it greatly underestimates, I hope, the open-mindedness of the tourist population who I think would continue to come for the comfortable rooms and pretty beaches and would love to enjoy the delicious local fruits in place of the canned pineapple juice they are currently getting.

Rewind. I arrived at the Rennaissance Jamaica Grande at 7:15 on Thursday morning with Camella. We'd had a nice but dark drive over the mountains with a very yummy stop at a roadside stand to get ackee-saltfish, calalloo, dumplings and mint tea made from fresh mint. I wasn't sure what to expect out of the conference itself, which was sponsored by OUR, the Office of Utilities Regulation. In it's favor were a very important topic: how to expand and regulate Internet access in Jamaica, and an attendee and speaker list filled with big players in Jamaica from Camella to OUR regulators to Cable & Wireless to all the new ISPs to members of the US FCC experienced in Internet access policy. Against it was an overfull program and the knowledge that panels at Jamaican conferences invariably meant a series of boring powerpoint presentations instead of a discussion of an issue. Although I was often bored in the course of the two days, I would certainly say the conference was a great success by any standards. It succeeded in getting the major issues on the table and dragging some kind of responses out of those who are in control. The main issues were: 1) the expansion of broadband across the island and the technologies that could be used to do it, 2) flat-rate pricing for dial-up access to prevent users from being discouraged to be online, 3) lowering the price for broadband access to the level where it is affordable by the average Jamaican, 4) lowering the cost to other ISPs of having their traffic carried by Cable & Wireless, and 5) providing universal Internet access to Jamaicans by making the Internet available at schools, libraries, and post offices.

As it turned out, Wayne and I were the only two people there who were actually working on the ground on a project to increase access and usage at universal access points like schools and community centers. This was a big coup for us. With some wheedling with the hotel staff and much more wheedling with conference organizer, I got us a slot to do a little presentation of our project at the beginning of lunch on the second day. (I had already spoken up about our project on the first day, and drawn quite a few comments so I think Wayne saw that a presentation might be well received.) In spite of keeping people during their lunches after a long morning of boring talks, our presentation went very well. The key results of it were the very strong public association of the Ministry of Commerce, Science and Technology with the project (via Camella), the renewed enthusiasm of the Cable & Wireless team (including readiness for the server, a verbal agreement to take responsibility for getting a bunch more Fruityloops licenses, eagerness to get moving on a business proposal to their corporate team, and identification of more target schools), offers of help from other technology groups like Jamaica Online and Tech Jamaica, and lots of general interest.

On Friday afternoon I did my talks on my panels. The ICANN one was a bit exciting because I disagreed so strongly with Professor Lee McKnight from Syracuse who was on the panel with me. For those in the know, you might have already guessed that McKnight is a compatriot of Milton Mueller and subscribes to his ideas about ICANN. For those who are not in the know, ICANN is the organization that runs the domain name system of the Internet, meaning they handle policy for IP addresses and domain names. This panel was about the relevance of ICANN for Jamaican ISPs and regulators. The substance of my talk was a sort of history of the DNS and ICANN and a bit about how it works--stuff that someone who's job relies on the Internet should probably know. My bottom line was that beyond knowing what ICANN was, they shouldn't waste too much time worrying about it. From their perspective, the domain name system works, there is no scarcity of names or addresses, there is too much collective investment the world over for anyone to allow it to break, the .jm domain is being well-managed by the University of the West Indies by appointment of the Jamaican government. They have much more important issues to worry about, like universal access and basic Internet literacy. McKnight, on the other hand, wanted them to sign on to a white paper filled with many small gripes about ICANN and its illegitimacy, all of which are quite irrelevant to the Jamaican Internet situation. I probably disagree with more than half of the things in his white paper and agree with or am agnostic about the rest (some of them even contradict each other), but I was mainly bothered by the attempt to present it to this audience as something that they needed to worry about and to push it over on them without full enough information for them to be able to make any kind of reasonable decision about it. Luckily, the subject was so foreign to them that I think not a person in the audience understood much of what he was talking about. All in all, my talks went well and helped us to make even a few more links.

An American company called Primewave communications was there with some pretty cool wireless technology to demonstrate. They chartered a boat for a sort of demo/junket on Thursday night. Wayne arrived just before the boat was scheduled to leave and we hopped on. Bruce, a Primewave guy with a digital camera captured this picture of us: