We fly into Kingston and it is driving through the heart of the island to Ocho Rios in the north that we experience our first taste of this foreign land. It is a Friday night and the settlements are humming.
Further out of the city, our driver winds down his car window; the air is heavy and the aroma of barbequed jerked chicken fills the taxi. Locals gather in plastic chairs around smoking fire pits outside brightly painted wooden huts, while reggae and ska music plays. People wander around with an enviable, timeless ease and comfort.
It is a shame to have to leave these colourful and vibrant streets for the hotel compound, to instead pass through a series of security gates. Crime levels are high, owing to the widely dispersed demographics and the fact that citizens suspect their police force of corruption and collusion with criminal gangs.
Any visitor to Jamaica must make a pilgrimage to Mount Zion, the home of the Marley family and birthplace of the reggae legend himself. On arrival, we are offered an array of dried cannabis, rolled joints and pot brownies.
The laws banning cannabis, colloquially known as ganja, have been relaxed since 2015. Now, it is only a petty offence and permitted for spiritual and medical use as part of the Rastafari religion.
After visiting the colonial Great Houses on the island, it is difficult to avoid the realisation that they are sitting on the brink of a very sensitive topic. There were once 700 Great Houses spread across the island; only 400 remain and most of those are now in ruin.
During the emancipation movement in the 1950s, many of these houses were burnt down by Jamaicans. Despite being a key tourist attraction, these houses seem remarkably under-advertised and the Jamaicans show a distinct lack of pride to show off these reminders of a violent past.
The most beautiful, the Rose Hall Great House, sits high up on the hillside between the palms and bougainvillea, brilliantly white in the Caribbean sun with grand steps leading up to the front door. A veranda trails around the full perimeter of the house and it is only up there that you can escape the stifling inland heat and feel the cool ocean breeze. In the hallway, there is a great oil painting of a nineteenth century English family: the plantation owners.
It is only when you hear of the atrocities that took place here that you come to your senses, previously clouded by the sheer beauty of the structure. In the open-arched cellars, there is a display of sinister instruments. One that resembles a bear trap is actually for humans; a slave trap with sharp iron teeth. The memory of the lady of the house casts a dark shadow over the house, having allegedly killed two of her husbands. Popular culture also ensures that her memory never dies, as she is most famously the subject of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ballad of Annie Palmer’.
The second house is the former home of the Barrett family, and has a far less sinister story. It was home to the largest library on the island, and these plantation owners taught their slaves to read and write. Both houses, bound by the same past, have contrasting stories. I feel that this part of our dark past is something that should be seen, as a mark of respect to the Jamaicans.
The Jamaicans are immensely proud of their coffee bean plantations. They sit high in the famous Blue Mountains, where Jamaicans proclaim that the world’s finest coffee is produced. The part we visited encompassed lots of small plantations making use of awkward mountain sides.
Authentic and not designed for tourists, these plantations made us seem like goats scaling the dusty and steep mountain paths, which the plantation workers traverse with an effortless agility. The pride with which the owner shows us the process of preparing the beans is fascinating and admirable.
I really liked Jamaica and the laid-back nature and spirit of its people. Their history is rich and undeniably woven with our own, still evident today. Yet their culture is distinctly Jamaican, rebellious and refreshing to the western world – an outpost of resistance against its cultural dominance. Jamrock is ever colourful, alive and vibrant.