Passengers arriving at Montego Bay airport still step out of the plane and down an old-fashioned portable stairway before standing on the tarmac itself. Let’s hope these will never be replaced by the modern, air-conditioned tunnels of other airports. Otherwise you would lose that never-to-be-forgotten blast of hot damp air which instantly knocks you straight back the two, ten or forty years or however long it is since you were last there, and reminds you that Jamaica is indeed a magic place, really not part of Planet Earth at all but somewhere very special indeed.
Add to the mix the ‘Welcome to Jamaica’ group of cheery singers and dancers in the airport itself, the joyfully robust drivers who love to be behind the wheel of any car, the knock-kneed bicyclists, the hens all over the road and the goats and cattle in ‘long pasture’, and by the time you pull in to the serenity of Round Hill you are well into a sense of paradise refound. This sense profoundly enhanced by the whistling frogs each night, the sea lapping warmly at the beach so close to the bedrooms, the cicadas by day, the flowers and palm trees, the warmth of the people, that joyful Jamaican chuckle.
The 2003 FGSJ Jamaican tour was so full of fun and adventure, although it had its share of nostalgia, that a small space cannot do justice to it. All sixteen members of the group, plus the never-to-be-forgotten Norman, our wonderful driver, who also became a friend, had such a memorable time that the glow will linger through several British winters.
Pamela, our organiser, prepared a wonderful tour, full of the perfect mix of old houses, sentimental journeys for some, meetings with many wonderful Jamaican people which brought us in touch with island life today, and explorations of the innermost parts of the island. The group was entertained more than once by local chapters of the GSJ, and most memorably by the wind-up civic reception in Falmouth.
We had many adventures, mostly in the bus. There were several Greek choruses which became part of the routine – ‘Norman, we can’t go any further, you better stop here and we’ll walk’ – this always put Norman on his mettle, as he wheeled his bus deeper and deeper into tracks through guinea-grass, or canefields, or up precipitous tracks into the unknown. Another (as the rapid tropical dusk was falling) was – ‘Norman, it’s getting late, we can’t go on’. Auriol’s hunt for her ancestral properties took us off all known maps, and once ended up at a place where the advertised bridge turned out to be a ford across a not insignificant river. It didn’t stop some intrepid members of the party wading across – and the usual small crowd of people emerged silently from the bush within a few minutes, to gather round us with curiosity and a variety of comments. Always eager to help.
Pamela never forgets Spoon, the boy on a bicycle (complete with engine) we met in the deepest bush, who turned out to be a modern man of opportunity. With his mobile phone to the fore, he earned money taking passengers to market, one at a time, on the back of his small machine.
Another memorable moment was Christopher, our intrepid road planner, coming up to the front of the bus, setting his GPS on the dashboard, spreading out his wonderful old maps on the floor, studying them carefully for a while and then asking ‘Where are we?’ There was the day we hunted for Alley Church for a long time but when we arrived we found it was locked. After peering through the windows (and noting a stained glass window with a black Christ on the cross) an old man turned up and said if we took him ten minutes down the road he would get the key for us. It turned out that we had kindly dropped him home but there was no key, and in the meantime many of us gathered to sit on tombstones and wait, patiently, Jamaica-style, for whatever was going to happen next. Douglas, our architectural adviser, was so frustrated he considered getting a small member of the party to try and climb in. We finally gave up and pulled away, late as usual for our next assignment. But then, true Jamaica-style, we were always late everywhere we went. And, trueJamaica-style too, our next lot of hosts were invariably gracious and forgiving and welcoming and lovely.
Then there was the day we found ourselves in a bar at Negril, all part of the rich tapestry that makes up island life, and perhaps we middle-aged ladies who were propositioned en masse by an excited American took this as a compliment !
How could we leave all this ? Difficult to answer. But our tour organiser managed somehow to round us up from the joys of Good Hope, our last magic stop, and get her reluctant charges down to the airport and onto the plane.
But we left our hearts behind.
(This article first appeared in Georgian Jamaica, the newsletter of the FGSJ, in December, 2003.)