grande jamaica

after four weeks of living in jamaica, becca and i finally got a chance to spend a few days outside of kingston. becca was asked to speak at an internet forum being held in ocho rios by the ministry of utilities. for her part, she was provided accommodations at the hotel where the conference was to take place, the renaissance jamaica grande, a subsidiary of marriott, the largest and most prominent all-inclusive resort in the attractive coastal town. (ocho rios stands third to montego bay and negril as a tourist spot in jamaica.) despite the pre-packaged feel we suspected the hotel would have, we were both looking forward to spending some time on a beach and taking a little holiday. moreover, we were curious about the hotel, wanting to compare our experience in jamaica so far with the jamaica that most tourists are shown. we were glad to have a complimentary chance to check it out.

since i was conducting workshops at the american school on thursday, i decided to meet becca in ocho rios later in the day (she left at five am). i had planned to take a bus from kingston, which seemed to be an inexpensive and interesting prospect. it turned out, however, that one of the companies at the conference was offering a cruise departing at 5:30 that evening, so i chartered a taxi to get me there quickly (the ride can take well under two hours, depending on traffic and the driver's desire to tempt fate). driving in jamaica is quite an experience. never mind the wrong side of the road problem, which, for the passenger (being a driver, i assume, requires more adjustment) quickly loses its jarring effect. taking corners and passing cars in kingston is often enough of an adventure. taking corners and passing cars (sometimes several at once) as one winds through the mountains, pedal to the floor, is a more grueling experience.

my driver was an excellent driver, which did a little to assuage my frequent fear of hurtling to my death. i don't think he ever let up on the gas so long as he could accelerate, which meant down-shifting--not breaking--and speeding up around tight corners, getting as close as possible to the rapidly traveling (though never rapidly enough) car ahead, and passing caravans of slower cars if possible. that said, my driver did an impressive job. he was easily the fastest car on the road (no one passed us anyway), partly because he knew the winding road so well that he traced it incredibly efficiently. i asked him how many times he had driven this route. "how many times? nuff times, mon. sunday, tuesday, and wednesday of this week." i got the point. he had been driving twenty-years, probably with this kind of weekly frequency through the mountains. he got me to ocho rios in the time he said he would (two hours), which was rather fast considering the thursday afternoon traffic.

having, towards the end, grown a bit nauseated by the twisting, turning, and lurching, i was not looking forward to a cruise. but it was refreshing and reinvigorating to pass through fern gully (a cool, damp stretch of road, surrounded by ferns on both sides, and covered overhead by a thick canopy of trees) and then into town, sun still shining. i shouldn't skip over the beautiful ride by focusing on the dangerous driving. the roads through the mountains have granted me some of the most gorgeous glimpses of grand jamaica i have ever beheld. from kingston, you pass through spanish town (with its central-but-abandoned colonial-era courtyards) then you ascend into the hills, where before long, the vegetation grows denser and the air cooler. soon enough, you are driving along high mountain roads through bamboo forests. here and there people sell fresh fruit, mostly mangoes and otaheite apples. then the vegetation recedes a bit, villages spring up, and the descent begins. fern gully makes for a fitting cool down in the final stretch before the coast. once through fern gully, ocho rios springs up fairly quickly. dancehall reggae fills the air from several directions as soundsystems (advertising that night's dance or a particular record store), cars, and vendor's carts take part in an informal soundclash (the dancehall term for a competition between soundsystems). the jamaica grande is located right on the beach and right off the main road. i paid my driver JA$3000 (US$60), which is the standard fare for the journey in a taxi (the prices dive for buses: JA$125 - 250, or US$3-5), and not a bad price considering that my stay at the hotel would cost me nothing.

i met becca at the aptly titled "fantasy pool," which, i noticed, was cleaned every morning by a shirtless dread, the stella-got-her-groove-back type. the cruise left from the hotel dock. (you really never have to leave the hotel.) it was not worth the breakneck pace of the drive through the mountains, but it was a good introduction to the culture of the jamaica grande (not, mind you, the culture of jamaica. oh, no. this was an entirely different animal). we shoved off with twin speakers blaring lovers rock at us, a little heavy on the treble, and set off down the coast to dunn's river falls, a famous waterfall nearby. it was a nice enough view from the boat, but not quite worth the trip. still, the sunset was lovely, and then the stars. and the rum punch (white overproof rum mixed with water and syrup) hit the spot. the water got very choppy and we had to head in early because some people, myself not included (remarkably enough), were feeling ill. we cruised back into the hotel bay and camped out in the calm waters while a man entertained us all by eating fire, ripping apart a coconut with his teeth, and lifting up women by the belt with his teeth. then there was a limbo and a beer-drinking contest. i kid you not. participation was lackluster (we're talking about internet service providers here), especially since the prizes were promotional company-logo polo-shirts. "hey, that would look sharp on the golf course! or on casual friday!" thoreau says beware any enterprise that requires new clothes, especially promotional polo-shirts.

the rest of the jamaica grande was less impressive than the boat ride. for an expensive resort, the lack of quality was astounding. the all-you-can-eat buffet was practically inedible, though becca and i knew quite well (and confirmed on friday night) that there was absolutely astounding food to be had around town. they couldn't even put out fresh, local fruit or juice, never mind fish, bammie, and calalloo. (world of fish on james avenue, a short walk from the hotel, is not to be missed. even so, one is lucky to see another white face in the vicinity, especially after sundown.). it seemed as if, in truly contemporary jamaican fashion, everything was imported. the beach was a flimsy, artificial-looking strip along a stale bay. white girls aged 10-18 walked around with their hair in complimentary braids. a high percentage of guests--over half were american, and there seemed to be an inordinate number of italians this weekend--could best be described as resembling whales or lobsters, and there were plenty of lobsterish whales. the music and "culture" were completely canned. consider, for example, the dinner-time serenade of a smooth-jazz-ish reggae band doing lionel richie covers or the friday night faux-naughtiness of doing the limbo and conga-line-dancing to the lascivious sounds of trinidadian soca ("turn it around and push it back in" [repeat ad nauseum]). compare this music with the dancehall and roots reggae pounding away, day and night, in the center of town--just a stone's throw away. to the detriment of their own experience, and certainly their cultural horizons, the all-included set miss out on the vibrant local music scene as much as they miss out on ochi's culinary delights.

it would be incorrect to call the hotel's bizarre mix of cultural signs a representation of jamaicanness, for the mix was too messy and the focus too vague. to be more precise, we might talk about the hotel's "projection of caribbeanness," which struck somewhere between exoticism and familiar fun. one wonders how much the presentation is fueled by the guests' actual desire or by an assumption on the part of the proprietors (who are american) that such is the experience people desire. i am sure it is more of a push-and-pull than any supply/demand model could attempt to explain. still, i can't help but feel cynical about the phenomenon. don't get me wrong: i hold no delusion that there is some "authentic" jamaica to be found and presented, oyster-like, to fat, ignorant american tourists or to naive anthropologists or to reggae lovers. the real jamaica is, of course, all of the jamaicas anyone imagines. the projection of the idyllic and carefree jamaica creates some serious tension when compared with, say, the reputation of jamaica as the country with the highest murder rate. (the tension jumps out of the little pink booklet of dos-and-don'ts that the hotels distribute to guests.) for all of the fantasy, one always bumps up against the stark reality of poverty, of desperation, of hunger. but perhaps not if one never leaves the hotel.

i am deeply interested in the concept of authenticity, at least partly because i recognize that it operates on my own perception, my "reception," or interpretation, of various texts, cultural and literal. i also see the way it plays into other people's ideas about life and art, essence and appearance, soul and race. it is good to confront oneself about what one deems to be real and why. what is involved in such a value judgment? what kind of assumptions undergird the determinations we make, the reactions we have, especially to cultural materials (e.g., music, film, advertisements, language, social practices)? examining the way that i react to music that i deem to be authentic or not, and asking myself why and how i confer authenticity to something, is usually an edifying experience. the conversation about hip-hop, including and far-exceeding the lyrics themselves, is pervaded by the question of what, or more often, who, is real. i am curious about how authenticity is communicated in sonic terms--what are the musical signs which convey the real? i wonder how it works as a psychological process--is it a kind of elicited empathy? i wonder about the negative ideas that often travel with things deemed authentic--how are one's ideas about race, about the inherent differences and aptitudes of groups of people, informed, reinforced, or challenged by the experience of the "real" in music? i wonder whether by making the machinery of authenticity more visible, i can challenge people's complacency about their received knowledge. i wonder whether happy italian tourists give a damn. i doubt it.

after two days in fantasy-land, it was refreshing to get out of the hotel, and even out of the town, and into the hills. i was still seeking some peace, some way to rid myself of hope road's incessant hum, which has become the white noise of my life at this point (noise being the operative word). i was hoping for a chance to really see the stars and maybe, even just for a couple seconds, hear nothing but crickets. through our friend sarah hsia, a law student who spent january in jamaica doing some research for charlie, we happened to know of a man called kush who rented rooms and had a little bit of land, filled with fruit trees, just outside of ocho rios in exchange--a sizeable village that snakes its way through the hills. we happily spent our third and final night at kush's place. kush is the african/rasta name of horace faith, the reggae singer, or horace smith, which is his given name, his jamaican (which is to say, english) name, and the name by which many neighbors and townspeople still know him.

kush welcomed us when we arrived at around one in the afternoon. he immediately gave us a tour of the house and the grounds. we passed dozens of trees, bushes, and mini-orchards, most bearing or promising fruit: bananas, plaintains, coconuts, custard-apples, naseberries, sour-sop, mango, june plum, guava, paw-paw, orange, grapefruit. i think my favorite new fruit would have to be the naseberry--similar to a fig but larger, sweeter, and juicier (see photo, and check becca's blog for a close-up). after a look around the grounds and a glass of intense juice (a cold, thick mix of mango, grapefruit, and ginger), we gathered outside, shared a spliff, and began to talk. kush might say that we were "reasoning," which is the rasta term for philosophising, or "building," as hip-hop parlance would have it (i like the constructive implication). in a more self-deprecating or self-conscious mode, i might call it "bullshitting," which is not to devalue it really, but to be a bit ashamed by its lofty tone. still, i can't feel too guilty about contemplating big questions and old puzzles. in some fundamental sense, i know that my actions in all the small moments are informed by the way i see the big picture, which serves as a kind of compass, even if i allow the poles to shift around from time to time.

kush and i continued talking for at least two hours, shifting around the patio, casually ducking under the roof's slim shade and behind palm fronds to dodge the creeping afternoon sun. we discovered, to our mutual delight, quite a lot of overlap in each other's understanding of the world, of human nature, of social change. we did not overlap so much in our language. kush draws heavily on terms that still feel too loaded to me, words drawn from and perhaps irrevocably associated with judeo-christian religions, eastern and indigenous religions, and new age-isms. at the same time, i have learned that plenty of people use big, heavy words like god and faith with quite different meanings than i associate with them. i still struggle to wrest these words from their vestigial catholic meanings. but i suspect that my problems with organized religion will always be enough to keep me from embracing such powerful, and sometimes rather appropriate, language. fortunately, my tolerance for the use of such terms has grown as i have come to understand how differently people use them (and how significant the area of overlap that calls so many people to employ the same vocabulary). kush's religious views were flexible and general enough--even if couched in terms like "the almighty" and "the order of things"--that we were able to have quite a productive, and mutually reaffirming, conversation.

we talked about oneness and unity (yahweh-jah-allah-zen). kush appreciated a line from william blake i have had in my head recently: "if the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is, infinite." (aldous huxley was fond of this line, and named a book after it; jim morrison found band-name inspiration in it.) we talked about fear and insecurity, which seem to hold humans back more than anything. we spoke about living by example, about the importance and no-choice-ness of being. we talked about how life goes on, unremittingly. we talked about suffering and happiness, the preoccupations of many a philosopher. we agreed on music's power to teach and to reach. kush says that music is god, which i agree with, except for the "god" part. we contemplated the possibility of great social change. i expressed anxiety that we might annihilate ourselves before ever collectively realizing our potential. he called it natural selection. i was uncomfortable with the social darwinism and jested that we should build self-propagating robots as soon as we can. (becca chimed in occasionally and sagely. then she took a nap and left us to babble on.)

talking with kush reminded me of ongoing conversations i've been having with various friends for a while now. most vividly, it reminded me of an exchange with my friend ron ruhaak the last time i was in madison. we had an intense day of debate about the nature of things--serious b.s. ron, who had recently read delillo's white noise and had some discouraging, depressing experiences, said he was feeling lately like life is a bit too flimsy. i strongly disagreed. i just don't buy flimsy as a description of life. life is delicate perhaps, but, above all, resilient. in response, i called life a raging hard-on. that's a better metaphor for me, if a bit phallocentric. similarly, kush pointed out the way that life thrives in the most unlikely circumstances, recalling that he once saw a huge mango tree growing out of a rock. (now he plants trees in the middle of concrete slabs and watches them grow.) if one has a passive take on life, it will simply pass one by.

kush said i was a real breath of fresh air. he said i helped him to get out of a little rut he had been in (similar to my friend's, i think). he described me as a healer, said that i have a good vibe. i objected to his language again, but gratefully accepted the compliment. i came away equally reaffirmed, glad to see someone living simply, healthily, and with hope and faith. (yes, i said faith, but i use the word in a different way than, say, president bush, who uses it as a euphemism for religion, as in "faith-based initiatives.")

that night we jammed on guitar and drums. the next morning becca and i walked through the grounds to refresh ourselves. we had a wonderful breakfast of fruit salad (all produced on-site) and tea, and sat in the sun until noon. i made little beats on my laptop and kush joined me on guitar. he seemed energized, reinvigorated, joyful--almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment (good music, good vibes, gorgeous sights). i felt good to have played an inspiring role in an inspired person's life. (recently, i realized that "inspire" means "to breathe into," which seems like an appropriate etymological meaning.) kush thanked us for coming with stars in his eyes and promise of good things to come. i thanked him in return, complimented him on his land, the fruits of his labor, and his positive outlook. throughout my stay, and especially on the ride home (an equally- scary romp through the mountains, this time in a minibus), i thought about all the friends i would like to invite for a weekend retreat at kush's--a weekend of music-making, philosophizing, re-connecting, celebrating, eating fresh fruit off the tree, and anything else we can think of. anyone interested?