portland parish and quality tourism

as i can only use words like beautiful and gorgeous so many times, i have hesitated to describe our weekend in portland, one of jamaica's most beautiful parishes. (the island is divided up into 14 parishes, most of which comprise many towns and villages, not to mention large stretches of undeveloped land. the city of kingston occupies two, kingston [proper] and st. andrew). there are of course synonyms for such terms--breathtaking and majestic come to mind--but these do little justice to the profundity of being in such a place as portland. with its gorgeous coves, beaches, and mountains, portland presents an experience of profound sensuality not easily conveyed by prose. taking in panoramic sights, breathing sea-side air, feeling sun and salt on one's skin (or, a bit inland, rainforest dampness), hearing the roll of the ocean and the relative lack of other rolling objects, one is easily jerked into appreciation, into pause, into awe. at least, that is, one who has not spent much time in such places (an employee at our villa expressed deep boredom and confessed that the most incredible vistas now seem all too normal; he yearns for the spring-break bustle of negril). for me anyway, the experience is rather difficult to share, translated into relatively static media. photos won't suffice, nor will recordings, so i have none to share. having spent the last month reading walden at bedtime, i should be able to take a cue from thoreau, but i feel unable to wax rhapsodic about nature the way he does. if i were to try, it would be best for me to attempt the act in the moment, for, much as i may strive to craft the tranquil recollection of overflowed emotion (as wordsworth said of poetry), without being able to draw immediately on the images and sensations bombarding me, i soon forget the precise details that, piled one on top on another, make the experience so powerful. at any rate, i was too busy enjoying the moment to attempt to capture it in writing (another quasi-heisenbergian dilemma).

from what i am told, portland--specifically, port antonio and its immediate environs--is the part of the island that rich americans and europeans (some, notably, movie stars like errol flynn) drooled over long before mo' bay and negril were developed into the all-inclusive projections of jamaica that distract today's tourists from jamaica's true paradises. strangely enough (though consistent with our experience here), portland is also overlooked by jamaicans. a kingstonian friend told me today that portland is the most desired and least visited getaway on the island. presumably due to the lack of mass interest, the area retains its seemingly untouched splendor. (in some cases, thanks to hurricanes like gilbert [1989], the "natural" splendor has been re-touched.) still looking to recuperate from our scare earlier in the week, and quickly drawn in by the intense beauty of the place, becca and i embraced the chance to be tourists for a few days in the company of her family. travelling with three additional white people to breathtaking beaches and waterfalls, we would be taken as such anyway, despite the constant presence of donnell, leila's friend and classmate at duke, whose complexion is well-described by a nickname given to him by a girl who recently had a crush on him at school: "chocolate boy #2" (sorry, d). donnell was suprised last week to hear a kingstonian cabdriver refer to the four of us--me, becca, him, leila--as "whitepeople." donnell's parents are from guyana--a south american country often grouped with the caribbean for geographical, historical, and cultural reasons--and he grew up in brooklyn and atlanta. we had lively discussions about reggae, about which, having such caribbean roots, he knows much, and hip-hop, about which, being a burgeoning hip-hop scholar but a biggie-tupac baby, donnell has much to say and much to learn. it was fun trying to play the hip-hop sage, and it was humbling to be called on my knowledge of ghostface and goodie mob lyrics. when becca and i met up with everyone in portland, one of the first things donnell said to me was, "i have a quesiton for you about hip-hop and neo-colonialism. i'm going to save it for dinner." overall, it was refreshing to engage in a bit of intellectual conversation about the music. (having thrown a rather academic essay at you in my last blog, however, i'll save the details for later.)

but back to the tourist business. as i have argued in other blogs, me nah tourist. of course, in some rather undeniable ways, whether i like it or not, i am a tourist. still, there are some implications and connotations of being a "tourist" that i adamantly resist. i am not here to stay within the confines of a hotel and sunbathe on a fake beach, or to eat from long buffets of bad imitations of local cuisine, or to limbo to the sounds of calypso. i am neither ignorant of nor indifferent to local politics. i like reggae, but not all reggae, and i'm no sucker for dressed-up culture (unless it's so overboard as to finger my camp reflex). with vigilance, i attempt to give away my privilege, rather than benefit from it, whenever consciously possible. i am here to have meaningful relationships, to learn and to teach, to contribute to jamaica at least as much as i take from it (monetarily and metaphorically), and to live and work (which requires such non-touristy behavior as grocery shopping, cleaning house, taking buses, and residing in kingston). nevertheless, i am in jamaica. what can i say? i cannot resist a perfect beach, a cool hike, a good meal. it would seem rather foolish not to seek out such things when they are so accessible. i realize that i feel deeply guilty whenever identified as a tourist. this is, in a sense, wrong. jamaica needs tourism, especially from sensitive, sensible people. with its ideal climate, natural wonders, and distinctive cultural forms (notably, music and food), jamaica is poised to offer highly-desired service to its own people and to the world. tourism is a fine use of the country's natural and human resources. jamaica needs not my arguments for the tourist industry, which is its largest source of revenue. but jamaica would do itself some good by shifting away from the exploitative tourism of all-inclusive hotels, whose privatization of the coastline prevents most jamaicans from enjoying the island's best beaches and whose greed limits the economic and social opportunities of many jamaicans, not to mention the quality of the experience for the tourists themselves. (perhaps all that the lobster-whales of the world want is to sit in the sun sipping syrup-based rum-punch. but this recalls a question voiced by the roots' ?uestlove with regards to making hip-hop music: you can give them want they want, but what if you give them what they need?)

portland boasts myriad attractions for a tourist in search of some of the high-quality experiences jamaica has to offer. known for being a wet place, it is lush and verdant. with small, unassuming cliffs, its hills meet the sea (which, people say, appears most blue from this part of the island). quite often the rock opens up, revealing distinctive and picturesque coves whose beaches each approach unique forms of perfection. in the corner of one of the larger coves lies the blue lagoon itself (of brooke shields fame). a deep and clear pool, mixing warm sea-water and cool underwater springs, and surrounded by trees, the lagoon is a tranquil place, even with a restaurant in operation on one of its banks. becca and i swam from her parents' villa to the lagoon on our first morning there. it was a wonderful way to begin the day (after the blue mountain coffee, of course). the day before, shortly after arriving in the afternoon, fern and charlie took the two of us to frenchman's cove, another site to be seen. frenchman's is a relatively small cove, perhaps 30 feet wide at its opening, which lies perhaps 15 feet from shore. the rocks cause the water to whip itself up a bit, which made for a wavy wade over some of the softest sand i've felt under my feet. the kicker is the small, cold, clean river on whose current one may float down past the beach and out into the cove. still, frenchman's seemed quaint next to winifred beach, which finally felt like the caribbean beach i had been waiting to go to my entire life, and which we visited twice in three days. the water was somehow both clear and turquoise. and it was the perfect temperature. becca and i spent most of our time neckdeep, waterbabies both. and my tan is finally getting to where it should be considering the amount of time i have been here. (i don't get so much sun in kingston, since i generally avoid it, like most people, and tend to stay fairly covered-up--generally, you won't catch me in a tank-top or shorts outside of the house.)

in addition to the beach, we got the opportunity to climb into the hills a bit. after a bit of a drive along the coast, we arrived at reich (pronounced "reach") falls, a charming waterfall, which becca and i climbed with the assistance of a guide. as we ascended the falls, through a combination of hiking and swimming, the bamboo-dominated rainforest cooled us with mist and light rain. the guide stopped us after about 15 minutes and pointed out an underwater cave that we could climb into. i dropped through the man-sized hole and waited for becca to join me in the small cave. it was exciting to sit there for a minute, to feel the echo-chamber quiet, and to look out through the waterfall that formed its wall to the world. we passed through the cascading water and swam and climbed our way down. at the end of the climb, i took a somewhat daring leap (at least by my chickenshit standards), which required me to clear several feet of rock, and splashed into a deep pool below. becca was brave enough to attempt her own leap, but her body rebelled against her, causing her to stumble, somewhat precariously, into the forgiving water. i was curious about the name of the place. reich (usually pronounced r-eye-sh) is a german word meaning, when capitalized (and therefore a noun), realm or empire, and when lower-case, rich. it is also a common german surname, which is probably the most likely answer. the history was absent from the place, however, tantalizingly hidden by the new pronunciation, which seems more jamaican in its way. ("reach" is a more commonly-used verb here--e.g., "me just reach home. me soon come.") as i spend plenty of time pondering empire these days, i always find its mention curious, even when only coincidentally (perhaps--it's all in the imagination after all). on our way back to the blue lagoon, we drove through boston beach and had to stop for some of the famous boston jerk. i went for the jerk pork, since that is boston's specialty and since i usually opt for fish or chicken. it was decent, but definitely not the best jerk i've had here. (nevertheless, recently, "boston jerk" has become my favorite alias. i have been adopting the moniker as a way to position myself, explicitly and self-consciously, in my endeavors here. i recognize that i could be considered a bit of a jerk for bringing my critical perspective here, and i may as well meet such criticism head on and with a sense of humor.)

becca and i stayed in a small set of villas across the road from fern, charlie, leila, and donnell. the owners were an american couple in the business of quality tourism. they run bike tours of the mountains, raft tours and waterfall hikes, snorkling outings and glass-bottom-boat-rides. recently, they constructed an "authentic african village" outside of negril, for spring-breakers looking for something a bit less butch stewart (jamaica's hotel magnate). to underscore the authenticity of the place, the proprietor told me it was built with the help of rastas, was constructed entirely of bamboo, and had no wires showing. i laughed and said, "that's unbelievable"--the most honest response i could muster. i met this woman's doppleganger the next night, a rastafarian woman named sister p, who lives in port antonio. sister p has been a friend of charlie and fern since 1995, when they started visting jamaica regularly. previously, she ran an organic eco-tourist resort in the hills. at one time, apparently, she also organized back-to-africa trips to ghana. and for several years now, she has run an annual "african" cultural festival in port antonio, "fi wi see ting." her projection of jamaica, and of africa, aspires to the same authenticity as that of the owner of moon san villas, although, in some sense, it is no less a product of the imagination. both of these projections of african authenticity--the bamboo hut and the folk craft--derive their affective force from the resonant discharges of colonialism and the slave trade. neither manifestation could exist without the other. i was most interested in sister p's description of a week-long reggae festival she attended recently in italy. i have been tracking the movement of hip-hop around the world for some time. now that i perceive more clearly its close relationship to reggae, i am equally interested in tracking dancehall's wanderings. surely there are some interesting intersections. it seems about as strange for an italian to imitate kingston's accents and musical styles as for a jamaican to imitate new york's.

so, if i'm going to be a bit of a jerk about both the moon-san people's quality tours and sister p's offerings--and a real asshole about the all-inclusive projection of grande jamaica--what is my vision for tourism in jamaica? to be honest, i haven't really thought this through. for one thing, i am still grasping for a sense of it all. (and i confess--mostly because i anticipate being depressed and annoyed by the experience--i have yet to see the real tourist desinations on the island: montego bay and negril.) i suppose i envision something on the humble side: nice accommodations (e.g., a clean bed and working plumbing); good, local food and produce; access to beaches and other idyllic spots; and integration with the local economy, with a focus on quality goods, including food, entertainment, arts and crafts. nothing too fancy, nothing too fake.