The next 2 days of the trip were the days Steve & I were looking forward to the most. We were finally leaving the resort to see something of the “Real Jamaica”.
Day 3 January 31, Friday
Steve & I started off the day quite excited of what we were about to experience. But first, a small breakfast.
We decided to go with room service one last time and just get a fruit plate and juice.
Sigh… At least the pineapple was edible.
After this disappointment, we headed downstairs to wait for our guide. We didn’t have to wait long.
I will say that Steve hit the jackpot in our tour guide, the wonderful Lynda Lee Burks. She is an American ex-pat who has lived in Jamaica full time for most of the last 20 years. She has her own tour company that focuses on specialized tours, Jamaica Tour Society (http://www.jamaicatoursociety.com). She was a wonderful guide and companion for the next two days. I love her.
Steve & I wanted to go into Montego Bay to visit the produce market and look for some music. We also wanted to try the national dish of Jamaica, Ackee and Saltfish. Lynda Lee said she rarely gets requests to go into the city, so she was happy to take us.
The market was a maze of sensory experiences. They sell everything there from tobacco to clothes to kitchenware to produce. I’m not sure of the age of the market, but considering the importance of the city as a port, the market has likely survived in one form or another for at least 350 years. However, the building we saw along with the current fixtures was probably built in the early- to mid-twentieth century.
As we began walking around the market, it was clear to me that this is a country that takes a lot of pride in its food. While some of the produce was imported (we saw huge bags of onions, carrots, and potatoes), most of it was native grown.
Lynda Lee also gave me some advice as we began walking around: Always ask to take someone’s photo. If you don’t, if seen as an invasion of privacy and/or they think you’re a journalist looking to make money off of them. Since I’m not one who would naturally walk up to random strangers and ask to take their photos, I found the easiest way to approach this is to buy something from the stand. I figured the vendors would be much more receptive. Luckily, they were.
As we moved through the market, we did run across a stand that had the components of one of the national dish of Jamaica: Ackee. It has a mild, creamy flavor and texture that works well with the very salty fish in the dish.
After walking around a bit more, we all decided we were hungry enough to stop by one of Lynda Lee’s favorite cook shops in the market and finally get our Ackee & Saltfish.
And, here are the ladies who made us this culinary delight. Esther and Janet.
Their tiny cook shop in the market seems to be quite popular. It was actually one of the first places we stopped when we got into the market. After Lynda Lee chatted with them for a few minutes (she knows them well; they usually have roasted breadfruit, one of Lynda Lee’s favorites, in season), Janet agreed to set aside some of the Ackee & Saltfish for us when we came back by. They apparently sell out quickly.
To prepare the recipe, salt cod is soaked and boiled (although Janet used mackerel that morning), then sautéed with the cleaned ackee, onions, habanero (Scotch Bonnet) peppers, tomatoes, and black pepper and allspice (pimento). It is usually served as breakfast with breadfruit (when it’s in season), tomatoes, fried or boiled dumplings, boiled yams, and fried plantain or boiled green bananas.
All I can say is: Wow.
The full breakfast was Ackee & Saltfish, boiled yams, sweet potato, tomatoes, fried dumplings, and boiled bananas.
Like many cuisines in developing nations, starch figures pretty prominently in Jamaican cuisine. It’s a cheap, generally nutritious, and filling way to receive one’s sustenance. Not that I’m opposed to starch.
After we ate breakfast, we moved next door so Steve could speak with a gentleman named Bunny so he could buy some old-school Jamaican music.
While Lynda Lee and I were waiting for Steve to finish up with Bunny, we watch a gentleman dance to the old-school dub that was coming out of the speakers. But, I didn’t want to pay him for taking his photo (which can happen). So, I just have the memory.
After Steve bought his cd’s, we wandered around a bit more as we worked our way out of the market.
As we left the market, I needed to change some money, so Lynda Lee took us over to Andy’s Market. It is directly across from the produce market and gets quite the trade in money exchange and simply making change. It looks like a dry goods store, but the money exchange takes place in a rather strange way (to us anyway). High above the floor is a room where someone will reach down while you reach up with your cash, they will take it, count it, and give you the exchange. It’s all very efficient. Given the crime rate in Jamaica, it makes sense to have the extra cash as difficult to get to as possible.
Lynda Lee told me that all (or most) of the markets (dry goods and grocery stores) in Jamaica are owned by Chinese. After emancipation in 1838, Chinese were brought over as indentured servants. Over the years, after the practice was ended in 1920, the Chinese went into the mercantile business. Their descendants and more recent immigrants have become very successful and have, of course, become a very important part of the Jamaican economy.
After this, we drove to downtown Montego Bay. Steve was on a mission to find Empire Records.
Sam Sharpe was a slave who was the leader of the Jamaican Baptist War of 1832. He was unusually, for the times, well educated and his fellow slaves looked to and respected. He became a leader and deacon of his church who preached about the evils of slavery. While he initially preached peaceful resistance to slavery, in December 1831, the resistance turned violent. Plantation owners retaliated against the slaves and, in turn, the slaves burned the crops. Hundreds of slaves and 14 whites were killed in the ensuing violence. Within a few weeks, the rebellion was put down and the leaders of the resistance, including Sharpe, were captured and hung. Sharpe is considered a Jamaican hero and along with the statue in Montego Bay, he is also on the Jamaican $50 bill.
While we went on the quest to find this seemingly phantom record store, we were able to get a good look around the city. It is a mix of Georgian and somewhat modern architecture painted in bright Caribbean colors. Everyone seemed to have a purpose and a destination to get to, even if there wasn’t one. It’s also a very young country; Lynda Lee told me the average age is under 30. Everyone seems to have a dignity that one simply doesn’t see in many places. And, everyone we spoke to was simply so lovely and kind.
A perfect example of this observation was this man: The Gospel Man.
Note his cart. All hand carts in Jamaica have the wheel on the end to help steer. This is what made the Jamaicans believe they could field a bobsled team.
After a bit more searching and general confusion about its exact location, we finally found the fabled Empire Records. It was basically stacks of vinyl in a lottery shop.
Steve said that he could’ve gone all day just searching through the thousands of 45′s that were there (at one time the music means of choice in Jamaica). But, since Lynda Lee and I were waiting for him, he decided against it.
After this, we decided despite the rather substantial breakfast, we were hungry again. So, it was off to Tastee’s for Jamaican Meat Patties (apparently this is the place to go; it’s like the McDonalds of Jamaica – only better http://www.tasteejamaica.com). They’re a direct descendant of the English pasty.
The filling was ground meat, most often beef, but it can be filled with other meats or even seafood, in a sauce and spiced with pepper, allspice, and some chiles. The crust is flaky (the yellow color comes from either egg yolks or turmeric in the dough).
We kinda became addicted to these. I really need to find a good source for frozen ones. Or, better yet, learn how to make them.
After Tastee’s, we made our way back to Lynda Lee’s car for the ride back to the resort. But, one last stop: Scotchies. Scotchies is a very popular spot with locals and tourists alike. They have an extensive menu of jerk items, sausage, and fish.
We opted to buy a little each of a lot of things: jerk chicken, jerk pork, pork sausage, and grilled fish. This, along with some produce from the market would be our dinner.
As a quick explanation, jerk seasoning is basically a dry rub or paste that is rubbed, traditionally, on pork or chicken. It can be, however, used on other meats or even tofu. The two main ingredients in jerk seasoning are allspice (pimento) and habanero (Scotch Bonnet) peppers. other spices can include cinnamon, black pepper, garlic, nutmeg, thyme, and salt. Like any other indigenous spice blends in the world, it has hundreds of variations depending on the region and family. The meat is traditionally cooked on pimento wood (allspice trees). But, you’re just as likely to find street vendors cooking jerk chicken over charcoal in barrels.
After this, Lynda Lee took us back to the resort. We agreed to meet at 8am saturday morning.
She left. We took our goodies upstairs, changed into our swimsuits and went down to the beach for a while.
Finally, we decided to eat dinner. What we brought back was infinitely better than the resort food.
Now, for the meat course.
The fish was cooked with vegetables and chiles and steamed in foil. Almost like an escabeche style. The pork was tenderloin and very tender and flavorful. The chicken, if a little dry, had a good spiciness to it. Steve’s favorite was the pork sausage. It had a good, if course, texture and a spicy flavor. It all had a kick to it that I’m guessing is ubiquitous in Jamaican cooking.
We concluded that it was the best food day we’d had on the trip. Well, the best day we’d had so far.
But, Saturday was coming and Lynda Lee was taking us out into the countryside.
Day 4, Saturday, February 1
Lynda Lee met us downstairs at 8am ready to take Steve & me into the wilderness. We first made a stop in Montego Bay at a cook shop known as Poor Man’s Pelican for, what else? Ackee & Saltfish. Hey, eat what the natives eat. It’s usually better.
The breakfast here was a little different from the one in the market on Friday: The Ackee & Saltfish was made with the traditional salt cod instead of mackerel, the dumplings were boiled instead of fried, the yams were again boiled, and there was also a side of steamed & shredded cabbage.
I can’t really compare the two. They were equally delicious, but different. I will say, though, I did like the boiled dumplings more than the fried. And, the Ackee & Saltfish at Poor Man’s Pelican was a bit oilier (which probably helps to explain the boiled dumplings – soaks up some of the oil).
After breakfast, we headed the opposite direction towards the south and west coasts of the island. We had an eventual goal in mind: The Pelican Bar in Pelican Bay.
The Jamaican countryside is not at all what I expected it to be. I was thinking it would be all palm trees and sand. The stereotypical vision of what a Caribbean island should look like. Well, I was wrong. It ranged from lush and green to hilly to brown and scrubby the further west and south we went.
The island is ringed with basically one major highway (the A2) with smaller roads and spurs coming off of it. Outside of the major towns, much of it is basically a two-lane road (at least what we drove on), and depending on the parish administration, can either be a well maintained road or a rut-filled dirt track.
I was admittedly reluctant to ask Lynda Lee to stop so I could take photos because there were essentially no shoulders. One side of the road was rock face and the other was drop off into a deep valley. I finally worked up the nerve to ask her to stop and pull over so I could take a few photos. We picked a good place.
After we had been there a few minutes, a gentleman walked up to us to see if we needed help. When Lynda Lee explained we were just looking around, he started talking to us about the fruit that he had in his hands – sweetcups. They are relatives of the passionfruit and crack just like eggs.
While Lynda & I were talking to him, a lady walked up to see what was going on. She and Steve began talking. From what he could glean from their conversation (we were pretty deep into the country by now, so her Patois accent was quite thick), she was on her way to a funeral. The man was shot, she said, and his body was frozen until they could bring him home. She was quite open about it.
She was dressed in what was likely her best clothes and wanted Steve to take her picture; so he did.
After a few more nature shots:
Soon, we were off again.
Our next stop was the small fishing village of Bluefields. Lynda Lee had done some work there with USAID about 10 years or so ago and wanted to show us around a bit.
She said that while USAID basically provided the funding and got the program going, the local fishermen took it upon themselves to clean up the bay, begin fishing further out into the sea, and allow the fish to repopulate the bay. They learned how to manage a sustainable fishing model.
As is my wont, I started wandering around.
We continued on our way from Bluefields to the Pelican Bar.
The Pelican Bar has become quite the attraction since it was first built in 2001. It was built originally by a fisherman, Floyd Forbes, as a place where he and his fellow fishermen could hang out after a day’s work. He built it in Pelican Bay (so named because of the large number of pelicans who nest and roost there) on a sandbar. Before long, the local hotels saw the potential of promoting the bar as a way to attract tourists to the area. In 2004, the bar was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. Floyd didn’t have the money to rebuild. However, a local hotel owner donated money and materials so the Pelican Bar could rebuild.
And a legend was born.
Before we left to go to the bar, Lynda Lee pulled out a rather sinister looking tool and told us that it was used to open jelly coconuts. That’s when I learned jelly coconuts are simply fully ripe coconuts that haven’t dried yet (becoming the coconuts we’re all familiar with). She cut the stem out with this tool – it looked like a very thin, curved, sharp trowel – and we all had a refreshing glass of jelly coconut water.
The bar itself is about a 10-minute boat ride from shore. You simply hire a boat to take you out and the bartender will call when you’re ready to be picked up. Or, you can also set a time for the driver to pick you up. I think.
Once you get up to the bar, the driver ties the boat to the steps and you carefully get out.
This is the first thing Steve & I saw when we stepped inside:
Obviously, some people brought memorabilia to leave here and there is a lot of carving of names in the wood:
Steve & I both looked at each other and said, “Who brings a license plate on vacation?”.
After getting past the tourist-left rubbish, I made a point to just enjoy the beauty of the place.
Lynda Lee went snorkeling, Steve was inside drinking a Red Stripe, and I sat on the steps in the water and just decided to revel in the sounds of the sea.
After awhile, I moved to the back to dry off and get a little more sun. Steve got in the sea and swam a bit while Lynda Lee joined me.
While Lynda Lee and I were talking, a fisherman docked at the bar and asked us if we wanted to buy some of his catch. We declined. However, you can buy seafood from the fishermen and they’ll cook it up for you at the bar. Or, sometimes, the bar has something already made. We were still full from breakfast, so we didn’t eat anything.
But, the fisherman did join some of the other gentlemen in the bar for a game of dominoes. It seems to be a contact sport here. At the least, it’s taken very seriously. It was fun to watch.
About this time, we asked the bartender to call to shore so our boat could pick us up. The wind was starting to pick up and we could see clouds on the horizon, so we decided it was a good time to go. Also, another boat of tourists was coming towards the bar. Call me anti-social, but I wasn’t having any of that.
But first, since we had to wait anyway, a little more relaxation and photos.
Our boat arrived and we were ferried back to shore. After hosing ourselves and our belongings off - kinda – we headed back towards Montego Bay.
We ran into some pretty heavy rain and the reality of the rut-filled dirt roads hit hard. They become mud pits. Lynda Lee smartly had a 4-wheel drive; so, while problematic, the roads were passable.
On our way out, we passed through a town called Whitehouse where they were setting up a row of cookshops for the Saturday night crowd. Coming back, the shops were open for business and we decided to stop.
We were immediately surrounded by vendors hocking their wares. It all looked really good. Lynda Lee, in her quiet way, told them we were just looking and they seemed to back off rather quickly. One lady did say that she had some fish fresh out of the fryer. Lynda Lee said that was the person to see.
Snack time. We had some fried parrot fish, bammy bread, and pepper shrimp (better known to us as crawfish)
It was, quite honestly, the best fried fish I’ve ever eaten. I don’t know what she did, but it was magic. If I ever get back there, I’m gonna ask her.
Lynda Lee told us that these cookstands really cater to the locals rather than tourists. I concluded that’s why the food is so good.
As we moved further into Whitehouse, we stopped at Peter Tosh’s house. It was one of Steve’s goals that we find it (his first reggae album purchase was Tosh’s “Legalize It”). It wasn’t easy to find. The entrance is tucked behind a coffee shop.
Steve took a quick tour of the grounds with the caretaker and had a rather lengthy conversation with him about Tosh’s music. Steve seemed to be enjoying himself. It could’ve also been the wafts of ganja emanating from the caretaker and the whole place. Lynda & I could smell it and we were in the car.
A quick biography of Peter Tosh: He was an original member of Bob Marley & The Wailers but had a falling out with Marley and left the group in 1973. He went on to a solo career and released nine albums, including “Equal Rights”, “Bush Doctor”, and “Mama Africa”. He was killed in September 1987 after a group of gunmen, one of whom he knew, invaded his home and demanded money. After he told them he didn’t have any, he was shot and killed.
Again, we were off.
Lynda Lee had been extolling the virtues of this one jerk stand to us even before we set foot in Jamaica: Border Jerk. It sits on the border of Westmoreland & Elizabeth Parishes, hence the name.
Once again, she didn’t disappoint.
I suspect because Border Jerk caters more the local population as opposed to tourists, the food is made with a bit more care as opposed to assembly-lining it. (Not to say they did that at Scotchies. But they had so much made that had no doubt sat around for awhile it took something away from the whole experience.)
Again, it was like comparing apples and oranges with Scotchies. While we agreed that the chicken was most definitely better at Border Jerk – tender, juicy, and just the right balance of spicy – the pork was a different cut (I couldn’t quite tell what it was) while the pork from Scotchies was tenderloin. They were both equally wonderful. And, we finally got to try Festival. A slightly sweet fried flour fritter. All this paired with a Red Stripe? Ambrosial.
We finally made it back to the resort, exhausted, around 6pm. After some hugs, almost tearful goodbyes, and promises to stay in touch, we took our leave of Lynda Lee.
It was a great day.
There was a “Farewell to Jamaica” party sponsored by the resort and our tour group that evening. Steve & I opted to just stay in our room and then take a late walk on the beach. That’s about the time we decided we really wanted to come back someday. Just hire Lynda Lee for a week and just tour around the island and see and experience as much as we could.
And, to bed.
Day 5, Sunday, February 2 – Departure Day
We didn’t think to bring any food back from our Saturday travels to have for breakfast, so we lurched downstairs and back to Port Maria for their breakfast buffet. We were prepared to be underwhelmed and we weren’t disappointed.
In fact, I won’t even bore you with the details.
But, we did get this great last view of the beach:
I checked the weather back in Fort Worth. It was 30F. Ugh. I told Steve this and we dressed accordingly. Many of our fellow travelers were about to embark wearing their summer togs. I figured they’d be in for a surprise. Or, they just wanted to enjoy the experience a little longer. I didn’t hear one person say they were anxious to go home. I wasn’t surprised.
Many of our fellow travellers either didn’t leave the resort or went strictly to the tourist areas on the island. I tried not to pass judgement. A vacation means different things to different people.
So, it was back on the bus to be shuttled to the airport. After the usual fun of getting the boarding passes, checking the bags, going through security, and finally making it to the gate, Steve & I spied some storefronts selling records, Jamaican foodstuffs, and meat patties. You can guess where each of us went. I think Steve bought 4 albums that he hadn’t been able to find in Montego Bay (in fact, the store owner told him to find vinyl, he’d have to go to Kingston). I bought some jerk seasoning that Janet at the market recommended to me and some Jamaican honey.
We then made our way to the shop with the meat patties. Our final meal in Jamaica:
Steve went back the shop after we ate and bought two more for us to eat on the plane.
Yes, it was really cold when we made it home. After basically being waved through customs and finally finding my dad, we were on our way back to my parents. We did stop for fried chicken to take home to Mom. Yeah. it was good.
The next morning before we drove back to Austin, Steve & I went to breakfast with my parents.
And, I saw this.
Kinda drove home the fact that we weren’t in the Caribbean anymore.
Once again I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Jamaica has a reputation, sure. Some of it is deserved, some not. But, as Steve & I discovered, when you let the scales fall from your eyes, you can find a whole new world you never expected. The people of Jamaica are lovely, wonderful people with a lot of pride in themselves and their country.
I highly recommend the journey. And hire Lynda Lee.