After several days of round-the-clock excitement in Negril, I strapped on my mobile office and stuck a thumb out. Three route taxis later (fare US$6.50) I found myself in the quiet, windswept landscape of Treasure Beach.
If you are unimpressed with the promises of an 'all-inclusive' vacation package, Jamaica's southern coast just may be for you. For now, at least, this far-flung region remains free from the excesses of mass tourism. Thankfully, the lack of long sandy beaches seems to have discouraged resort developers.
I stood on the serene and craggy coast, appreciating the fact that there was nowhere to unroll a beach towel and surveying the sweep of the Santa Cruz Mountains as they rose precipitously from the sea plain. The land here is different than elsewhere on the island; in the rain shadow of the mountains it is fairly arid and grassy. Instead of impossibly dense jungle foliage pushing in at you from all sides, here the terrain is open, expansive even.
Without making sweeping generalizations, I would like to submit that the people are different here as well. Most visitors will agree that Jamaicans are edgy - in a sometimes invigorating, sometimes irascible way - but on the South Coast the edges have been smoothed over by what Lonely Planet ascribes to 'a traditional life that keeps locals rooted and hopeful.'
Lonely Planet continues: 'You won't find a more authentically charming and relaxing place in Jamaica. The sense of remoteness, easy pace, and graciousness of the local farmers and fisher folk attract foreign travelers seeking an away-from-it-all, cares-to-the-wind lifestyle. Many have settled - much to local pride.' Couldn't say it better myself, so I won't try.
Having called ahead, I received an eminently warm welcome from Jason Henzell, the proprietor of Treasure Beach's most famous accommodation. In addition to operating Jamaica's funkiest luxury hotel, Jason devotes a lot of time and resources to community development projects. These range from hosting doctors from New York's Bellevue Hospital flown in to train locals in CPR and lifesaving techniques to rebuilding homes for those in the community who suffered in the wake of Hurricane Ivan.
On a morning drive with Jason around Treasure Beach - in between numerous roadside consultations with fishermen, schoolchildren and clean cut folks on their way to work - he proudly showed me the middle school for which his non-profit association had installed a septic system. He told me of plans to establish a radio communication system for local fishermen, and how in 2001 a marine light was installed at Frenchman's Beach to assist fishermen in navigating the dangerous reef. Just as Lonely Planet had predicted, here was a man rooted and hopeful.
Jason is the son of Perry Henzell, director of the seminal 1971 film The Harder They Come, which brought international attention to reggae music and catapulted its strutting star Jimmy Cliff to fame. Over breakfast, I learned the astonishing story of his father's subsequent film, entitled Home Sweet Home. You've never heard of it, because it was never finished. When shooting wrapped, the footage went into storage until funds could be raised for post-production. Tragically, when the rent for the storage facility went unpaid, the film was lost (along with Henzell's directing career). Fast forward thirty years for the happy ending. You guessed it: somehow, somewhere the footage was recovered and now an older, wiser Henzell is trying to find the means to bring closure to the project. According to son Jason, the film features a young hopeful named Grace Jones and a seven-mile-long empty beach in a place called Negril. Folks, you heard it here first.
To round out the tour, Jason showed me the cottage where Alex Haley wrote part of his masterpiece Roots, introduced me to the great dub poet Mutabaruka, and took me to an off-the-beaten-track Rastafarian-run guesthouse. Here weary travelers can get the road rubbed out of them with a healing 'vibeful' massage in a hut filled with aromatic steam emanating from an herbal cauldron bubbling with fever grass, mint, eucalyptus and pimento (allspice). I'll say the word with all due emphasis: SUBLIME.
For regular readers of this blog, next week we travel to the Cayman Islands. Thank you for accompanying me on my travels.