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The writer travels to Jamaica to introduce her children to their paternal heritage, and finds herself swept away by the island
There we were one day on a river, my daughter and I, gliding along the Rio Grande in a raft made of bamboo, with cup-holders by the seats and a spray of pink flowers in the centre and the Blue Mountains in the distance. On a second vessel a little further on were my son and his father, similarly bathed in a rippling pastoral peace while our boat captains plunged their long oars down to the river floor, surging us onwards, over rocky terrain where the water rushed, past quiet swathes of banana-trees and silvery coconut palms. It was a world away from the concrete thunder of London. Here we were at last, in the place across the sea that was also home, more distantly.
We had come by night, arriving at the airport in Kingston just as its indigo blanket was falling, then travelling three hours by road to Portland in the north-east of
Jamaica. We took on dark hills and mysterious steeps, circling around bush-lined bends leading into little towns where people were out in the streets, music playing from the bars and corners (Leona Lewis, Beres Hammond, Sizzla). It’s always an adventure arriving somewhere at night, the way it closes around you with its secrets and quiet threat, guarding the surprise of morning; a gift, an unveiling. And what a gift it had been – waking on a Sunday morning at the luxuriantly tranquil music-oriented Geejam Hotel in the hilly district of San San, with a view from the balcony of lush green palm fronds and the Caribbean Sea.
There comes a point, in the raising of children of mixed heritage, and if their parents are so inclined, when a question emerges, or perhaps an imperative. When will they see it, that land? When will they walk the soil and feel the air of the other place, where their grandparents came from in the Sixties, arriving on British shores to work and make new lives? My children are lucky enough to have two of the world’s mightiest cultural superpowers in their blood: Nigeria and Jamaica. We had already made it to Nigeria a few years earlier when I had taken them with me to a book festival in Lagos. Now, aged 17 and 12, it was high time for them to see Jamaica, the setting of their grandfather’s rural childhood stories of fishing, climbing trees and collecting coconuts and ripe mangos from their branches, instead of paying for them on overpriced import from Tesco.
The Rio Grande is one of Jamaica’s major rivers (there are well over a hundred in total) and the Blue Mountains, named for the mist that cloaks them, are the highest of its ranges (nearly half the island rests 1,000 feet above sea level). The country’s 14 parishes spread westwards from Portland and Saint Thomas, through Clarendon and into the rugged Cockpit Country, to Hanover and Westmoreland, with the city of Montego Bay on the north-west coast and less populous Negril on the western tip receiving much of the year-round tourist influx. Portland is a quieter affair, comprising the dreamy turquoise bay at Frenchman’s Cove, the magical Blue Lagoon offering an ethereal swimming experience, and the pretty, charismatic capital city of Port Antonio with its colourful houses ascending on the hills and the bustle of shops and local eateries (Piggy’s Jerk Centre and Juici Patties, Jamaica’s second most popular fast-food chain next to KFC).
One of the most delicious meals we had while on the island, though, was at M10 Bar & Grill in Kingston, not far from the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road. Think rich and spicy curried goat with traditional rice and peas, luscious fried chicken and saltfish fritters, all a much-relished treat after the extensive tour of the museum, which was home to Marley for six years before his death in 1981. Reggae being Jamaica’s superpower and my family household’s common music, we were glad of the chance to see the interior remnants of his legendary Tuff Gong recording studio, the guitars and haloed vinyl along the walls, and to stand in the sunlit brightness of his veranda, where he would hang out with his 12 children in a giant hammock stretching the length of the room. With just one day of our trip to spend in Kingston, we finished this excursion with a visit to another nearby historic building, Devon House, a mansion once home to Jamaica’s first Black millionaire George Stiebel – its green lawns and grand architecture have been cited by National Geographic magazine as the fourth best place in the world to enjoy ice cream (which is indeed pretty good, as endorsed by my children).
The village my partner’s parents left to come to England all those decades ago is in the parish of Saint Mary, a region that has spawned a roster of notable Jamaicans, including the musicians Lady Saw, Capleton, Beres Hammond, Tanya Stephens and Ninjaman. It was raining as we crossed the parish border on a Wednesday afternoon, with crowds of clouds dropping into the valleys, making the buildings look brighter by contrast. There is either a church or a bar seemingly on every other block in this, the third-largest of the Caribbean islands (after Cuba and Hispaniola), and a popular joke is that whichever way you’re going, ‘yuh gonna get the spirit’. Here were the roads along which the children’s grandmother had delivered groceries to Ian Fleming on a bicycle when she was a girl, at his Goldeneye estate in Oracabessa, 10 miles east of Ocho Rios. Here were the breadfruit and red-flecked ackee-trees and the coastline they had heard about, and within which those 14 James Bond novels had been written.
Situated just a short drive from the village, the signature GoldenEye hotel was the perfect place to stay while in Saint Mary. Vastly expanded from the idyllic Fleming villa itself (what writer could not write 14 novels in such a place?), it is now a sprawling, multidimensional resort of lagoon, swimming pool and sandy-bay waters, containing acres of space yet still maintaining an understated boutique feel. The children were delighted with having their own separate beach hut, away from their parents, who could, however, watch them playing and skimming stones in the ocean from their neighbouring veranda. The hotel also has a spa offering massages that can only be described as transcendental, and the cuisine is outstanding (golden dumplings with ackee for breakfast, mouth-watering croissant and bakery selections, and possibly the best roast beef and pumpkin rice I have ever tasted).
It was an emotional experience for my partner going back to see family members and connections he hadn’t laid eyes on in 25 years – a half-brother, old friends of his father’s. With the noon October sun blazing down on the main road running through the village, the children got to meet this new distant uncle of theirs, to sit in his self-built house and eat chicken patties in his backyard. It filled us with a special kind of joy to witness them being taken around the village being introduced to shopkeepers and extended relatives, to watch them standing outside their grandfather’s school building that is now a church, see the house in which he was born, and sit for a while on a stoop outside the convenience store. It felt like some meaningful osmosis was being facilitated, that they might hold on to this memory and it could feed them and in turn be fed by yearnings in their futures, a possible desire to return, to sense this geographical blood connection and be grounded by the weight and positivity of it. A piece of a jigsaw had been gently inserted into place.
That evening, we had dinner at Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios, a quirky, uplifting restaurant serving classic Jamaican dishes. En route to Montego Bay for the last leg of our trip, we stopped at the famous Dunn’s River Falls and Park, one of the country’s most treasured attractions, to which people flock nonstop to climb a 180-foot waterfall, its spilling cataracts generated by slippery deposits of travertine rock of varying shapes and sizes, some of them so large they have to be clambered over (water shoes necessary!). When we reached the top, the only thing to do was to go back down to the bottom, bathe a little in the sea stretching out from the foot of the falls, and then climb back up. It was one of the children’s favourite moments, that noisy hard pressure of the cascades against their determined upward motion.
Onwards through Saint Ann and Trelawny and Saint James, we reached its capital Montego Bay, where we stayed in an ocean-front suite at the magnificent Half Moon, a top-rated resort with imperious palms stretching into the upper blue, and equally blue bicycles on which guests can get around the enormous 400-acre expanse. The beaches and vistas here are stunning, perfect for paddle-boarding, kayaking or simply liming in the heat, and it would have been easy not to leave this paradise but for a high-octane excursion to the local Chukka adventure centre for horse riding in the sea and ziplining. A spookier adventure, less popular with the children, was a night tour of the Rose Hall great house, a former plantation in which abhorrent sketches of slavery and colonial history are brought to life, evoking a palpable sense of sadness and fury.
A final experience to return home with was a visit to the Rastafari Indigenous Village in the Montego Bay hills, which is currently being converted to accommodate residential retreats. We were shown how to cook natural Ital food on an open fire, the making and playing of drums, and how to gain sustenance and healing from the land, both spiritual and physical. Altogether, an unforgettable trip, stirring a plethora of complex feelings and new awareness, and a desire to return soon to explore Jamaica further.
The memory that will stay with me most of all is of swimming out alone into the ocean in the early morning as far as I could, with the cool light on the surface and the sea warmth wholly wrapped around me. The floor of the earth was just below, a little frightening at first, unfurling into wonder, and very silent.
Geejam Hotel, from about £375 a night including tax and service charge. GoldenEye, from about £475 a night, including breakfast. Half Moon, from about £455 a night. With thanks to the Jamaica Tourist Board. Diana Evans is the author of ‘Ordinary People’, ‘The Wonder’ and ‘26a’. Her new novel, ‘A House for Alice’, is published on 6 April 2023.
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