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My American Airline flight landed on Port Royal pirate wreckage at the Kingston International Airport, Jamaica. Port Royal was once the richest and wickedest sin ports in the Americas, home for notorious Captain Morgan's "Jolly Roger" and his nefarious 17th Century entrepreneurial fleet, flying the flag for fortune and infamy, sold to the highest bidder.
Kingston, the Caribbean's largest city, is now over a million plus, but back then it offered Black Beard, Morgan. and other souless seafarers the perfect port, protected by a spit of land, with Port Royal at the tip where the airport now sits. Like Gomorrah, Port Royal was destroyed, but not by fire, but swamped by an underwater earthquake, triggering landslides into the sea, creating one of the world's most lucrative marine parks. Continually, Spanish doubloons, gold, and bullion are salvaged from the site even today.
Rising from Kingston foothills the uneven Blue Mountains pierce low misty clouds in the distance. The 'Blue' range runs virtually the entire 145-mile length of Jamaica at varying altitudes, but at 7,200 feet, they are at their most majestic just out of Kingston, and the Caribbean's second highest mountains, after the Dominican Republic..
After an impromptu airport shower provided by the tropical humidity, I learned my bags didn't arrive with the flight, so I put myself up at the Indies Hotel, a quaint East Indian inn in the heart of the Kingston financial district. At night, the area is the home of roving reggae rave parties, and the beat of the island resonates through the hotel garden walls. The next morning my bags are waiting for me in the hotel lobby.
The decrepit train station in Kingston doesn't move any bananas or sugarcane along it's rusted skeleton anymore, but it is the only spot in the city large enough to accommodate the dragon-breathing, polluting buses that patches Jamaica's faltering transportation infrastructure together. Screaming above the hubbub, I locate a bus heading in my general direction. I cram in, bags tossed on top, and from a rag tag kid, I buy a plastic bag of "sky-juice," reminiscent of Gator Aid/Kool-aid. I sit back, sucking the warm slush through a straw. The driver grinds a couple of teeth off the gears, the bus lurches forward, setting out in the general direction of Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit.
The road into the Blues is serpentine, craggy along the coast, rising significantly out of Kingston, dropping back on the other side for a coast into Morant Bay, famous for a slave revolt so long ago. Near Morant Bay I am ejected out of the sweaty ganga bus at a triangular cross roads. I await anything that moves in the direction further into the Blues. After an hour's wait in the sun at the shabby, barricaded gas station serving as a bus depot, I decide to take anything, anywhere. Eventually a ride shows upan ad hoc Jamaican cab driver, who asks in proverbially Jamaican patois, "Hey mon. I de taxi mon; ned a liff, mon? Where to mon? Pay in dollars mon? J's no gud, mon. J's shit, mon."
We agree on a U.S. dollar amount, equivalent to, I don't know how many J's, or Jamaican dollars.
The crumpled car rattles over ancient roads and over 18th Century British Army Corps of Engineer built bridges, through the humid banana belt leading into the mountains.
In the 1600s the British occupied most of Jamaica, carving banana and sugar plantations out of the rich Blue Mountain foothills. The agrarian tradition continues today, with the eastern end of Jamaica producing some of the island's most lucrative cash crops, including Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit, and the world's most expensive and smoothest coffeeBlue Mountain, at about US$25 a pound. Recently the Japanese bought up most of the future coffee crop, paying a premium price. Suddenly, all the area farmers are in the coffee plantation business, planting crops on marginal, easily eroded soil.
After crossing a jungle river, a body-double of a "Bridge Over The River Kwai," I arrive in the small community of Bath. Bath was a favorite community of the British colonialists over two centuries ago. It is still the gateway to the cool Blue Mountains, and still the sleepy home for a few hundred Jamaicans; granddads lazily bicycle in loopy circles in the middle of the street in the middle of any given day. The only open thriving business in town is a juice joint on the corner of the only paved street, and it was serving a brisk trade in sky-juice. spiked rum, and today's gossip. After bailing out of the cab, sweat pouring off my forehead, I stumble into the juice joint, tanking up on sky-juice, water coconuts, and a shot of rum. In the open-air bar I ask a friendly face pedaling slowly by, imploring the direction of the Bath Fountain Hotel, the only real accommodations in the area. At the time, I didn't know how close I was to Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit.
The Jamaican bicyclist stopped, pointed up a graveled road spiraling north of the juice joint. Nothing less that a four-wheel boulevard. "About a mile, mon," grins the gap-toothed kid. Soon all the kids in the neighborhood seemed to be peering through the juice joint door. "My brother Joe has a motorcycle, mon." Joe is volunteered into the pickup and delivery business. He shows up just in time on a sputtering 100 cc Honda, hair threaded with dreadlocks, smiling, a spliff permanently stuck between bad teeth. I jump on the back of the Honda, luggage tearing my arms out of their sockets.
Bath Fountain Hotel rises majestically, with the Blue Mountains serving as an encompassing backdrop sentinel. Built as a hospital by the British in 1749, the stone hotel is now owned by the people of Jamaica. Revitalized after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, the hotel perches above the Bath River, more like a stream, like a moldy relic from a bygone era.
In 1609 the Maroons, slaves of Ethiopian extraction, and other British slaves in the banana trade, escaped their tyrannical masters, marauded, hiding out in the rugged Cockscomb area of the Blues, an area that today is largely unexplored, and just getting mapped, and where the Maroons still do not welcome whites into certain regions. The Spanish word for runaways is Cimaroons, and in the Carib shortened to Maroons. For over a hundred years the Maroons and the British waged battles back and forth in the Blue Mountains, but eventually the Maroons drove the British out of the mountains and into the foothills.
The British built the Bath Fountain Hotel as a hospital, not because of the battles, but because of the mineralized hot water that poured from the mountains. Clinically speaking, the hotel waters are claimed to be the most radioactive and healthful in the world, second only to Lourdes, France. The Maroons first discovered the healing waters, but the British developed the hospital with twenty clean, but spartan hospital rooms, and the 16 beautifully restored tiled baths in the basement.
After checking into the hotel, paying with a wad of colorful J's, I relaxed on the restaurant terrace with a real jungle punch drink. I ask about the mineral baths. It takes about two hours to slowly fill the three-foot, by six-foot, by three-foot deep baths. The 105-degree water flows out of the mountains in the original British plumbing system that is slated for upgrading. The bath waters are tempered with cooler stream or spring water. I reserve a bath for the next morning. Why I need a reservation for the baths is incomprehensible, I am the only person in the entire US$15 a night hotel.
The next morning, after a plentiful breakfast, I take to the baths, disrobing for a plunge into the curative waters. The baths are private, locked with a skeleton key, that is good on any of the doorssome privacy. The baths are hot and humid. Steam even rises here in the tropics. The hotel posts the percentages of the minerals in the water on the bath door. The soothing effects are profound, tearing retching fatigue out of my body. After about an hour, I towel off, thoroughly revitalized, with just enough energy to climb the flights of stairs back to the restaurant for a refreshing pulpy mango shake.
After a rest in the uppermost "penthouse," on a bed stretched with starched linens made as taut as any in the British Officer Corps, I listen to the afternoon showers splashing off the broad-leafed ferns outside my window. Later, I dress for dinner.
Hanging Out With Buster
It is ironic that the two national dishes of Jamaica are both imported. Codfish and breadfruit make up the locals' staple diet. Codfish is still imported, but fortunately Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit is readily available. This, all according to Buster, whom I meet at dinner on the open-air verandah restaurant, overlooking the river and the muddy trail into the mountain highlands.
We watch highlanders march into the montains with lit torches, the daily commute in the Blue Mountains. Buster is the unofficial mayor of Bath. From a liter plastic Pepsi bottle he freely pours a glass of his homemade homeopathic herbal jungle root concoction squeezed from 27 local herbs. A gentle rain begins to fall. Frogs croack as Buster tells me in his patois vernacular, the tale of Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit.
Captain Bligh was ordered in the 1770s to bring nutritious and valuable breadfruit back to Jamaica from Tahiti, where it grew naturally. Bligh almost accomplished his mission, except for a single snagThe Mutiny on the Bounty, which actually took place in the Tonga Islands. Mr. Christian and company "cooked up" their scheme and bounced Bligh off the Bounty, and after a grueling 4,000-mile open boat row across the Pacific, Bligh landed on the Dutch island of Timor, telling his fiery tale. Back in England, later Bligh told British Fleet Command his woes and they still saw him fit to outfit him with another ship, and he set sail once more for Polynesian breadfruit. This time he accomplished his orders. The British sailors commanded by Captain Bligh planted the first breadfruit in the New World in the Bath area. Descendents of the stately palm tree-sized plant still grow in the oldest botanical garden in the Caribbean, across the street from the juice joint in Bath
Slugging away on Buster's jungle root elixir with more herbs and spices than Kentucky Fried Chicken, I get a full explanation that the breadfruit is a great nutritional source. "But not as good as this 'ting," laughs Buster. "This bring you alive, mon." I take another slug and agree the licorice-colored swamp water is doing something, and is better than any corporate American diuretic. I purchase a couple of plastic bottles of the stuff from Buster, and he slides into the night as the waiter serves me the evening mealcodfish, ackee, and Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit.
After several days of drinking Buster's jungle zing-zang and benefiting fully from the Bath Fountain Hotel baths, the 20th Century oxides turn the iron in my blood to lead in my pants, and then is purged dramatically from my body. I have so much energy that I now want to explore the trails into the mountains unknown. Joe, my motorcycle sidekick, miraculously appears later that day, pan-handling his services as an expert tour guide and "doctor." "Of what?" I ask. "Of whatever ails you, mon," he replies. He offers to show me a twenty foot spliff plant somewhere in the Blue Mountain bush. "Yeah, mon, let the doctor take care of you, mon."
We head out the hotel and up the single mud track still pooled with the night's light rains and into the Blues. I am amazed that I can keep up with lean and lanky Joe. I attribute the strength to the recent clean living, the body realignments of the Bath baths, and Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit, and of course, Buster's bug juice.
Joe and I thrash and thresh our way through giant ferns, lemon grass, and up the warm spring waters feeding the Bath stream. While sitting on a boulder, pondering life, I heard a terrific buzz. A rare "Doctor Bird," one of the largest hummingbirds in the world, discovered my flowery red shirt and it attempts to suck nectar from my body. Later we machete down Ethiopian apples, big, crisp, red, pear-shaped single pounders. At the end of the warm springs, we find Maroon women pounding clothing clean on the slick boulders. Tuesday is washday. "Hey, mon, want to wash your clothes, mon?" Joe and I dive into the deep shady pools while the women scrub our clothes clean and dry them quickly on the hot rocks. This is my kind of laundry day. We later found the 20-foot spliff plant and took a few samples for scientific study.
Back at the Bath Fountain Hotel, Joe volunteers to show me Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit, but I meet Mary, a Jamaican guest, recently checked into the hotel for some R and R, and the only other person in the hotel. The next morning, after another bath, Mary and I hike down the gravel road to the botanical gardens in Bath to visit Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit.
We pass old mango trees, dripping and choking with vines and moss. We stop at Philip's place, a ramshackle hut built within the crumbling confines of a ruined plantation manor house. We stop at Buster's long enough to buy some more jungle elixir, with Buster smiling with reticent wisdom. At the bottom of the hill, reggae blares out of the corner juice joint, and then there it is, Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit in the Bath Botanical Gardens. As an after thought, a stain-glassed Anglican Church was built adjoining the square acre garden. Paradise both on earth and in heaven. Mary and I wander through the ancient groves of tropical foliage that is kept in ramshackle condition by the locals. Buds, saplings, and future generations of breadfruit are still cut for plantation sprigs from those imported varieties that are honored with reverence, but paid for in blood. The trees are identified by genus with little metal signs. And then there it is, rising above all else, a monster tree, spreading an umbra of shadow across all else. One of the original trees brought back from Polynesia by Captain Bligh. Oceans were crossed, ships lost, lives spent to bring this valuable cargo back to Jamaica, now grown into a gargantuan breadfruit tree. Captain Bligh must have finally had a grin of accomplishment on his sardonic sourpuss.
After a stint in the garden, Mary and I check out the looming church built of gray stone, towering over the breadfruit. Stone, white with colorful cut crystal stain glass cross-shaped windows, making any parishioner's heart sing. We stood in awe in the cool interior; tropical light prismed rainbows of colors across the pews. God's flashlight, spotlighting the condemned and anointing the salvaged.
After a week at the Bath Fountain Hotel, I know it is time to move on. Mary left, back to her supervisor's job in Port Maria. The hotel staff has been waiting on me hand and foot with quiet graciousness. The three-dollar cornucopia lunches and the four-dollar lobster dinners have no equal in any of the world's finest restaurants. Breadfruit and codfish, papaya and ten cent watermelons, five cent mangos, banana bread, Blue Mountain coffee sweetened with creamy opaque orange mountain honey; strange and rambling nights of jungle patois mixed with elixir peddled by the mayor on the hotel verandah makes me want to stay. The morning and evening baths have transformed me with a special feeling for the people and this unusual place, found only on the most detailed maps, where the Maroons discovered the Blue Mountain secrets many centuries ago.
The Admiralty slammed down the inquest gavel, and with a guilty verdict returned, several of the Bounty seamen swung from the tallest yardarm in the British Royal Navy. For the dozen men rounded up and captured in Tahiti after Fletcher and the mutineers sailed to Pitcairn Island, they must have been the most unlucky gallow mates, with unheard pleas dying in the wind, except for a curse on Captain Bligh's Bloody Breadfruit.
By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.