WESTMORELAND, JAMAICA, April 22, 2015 – On Earth Day, what better way to celebrate the earth than to remember the beauty of place, how the Earth is wonderful and varied? When you took the time to go someplace different. When you open your eyes to someplace different.
So was the beauty of this place, a journey to another world where the world moves differently.
When you get here, you’re in Heaven, and all the stresses of your life are washed away into oblivion. “Here” is Jamaica, the Bluefields Bay Villas at Westmoreland parish.
It is a trip of about 45 minutes. The van heads up and over the mountains while the city slips away.
Suddenly everything is lush.
Everything here is on Jamaican time. That is, it is when it is. It is all “irie, mon.”
Time ebbs and flows to the rhythms of your heart, not to the metronome beat of a watch. The only constants are the pounding of the surf and the generosity of the people.
Visiting Westmoreland, you have expanses of the blue water that is the protected sanctuary of Bluefields Bay, a crescent-shaped bay that is returning to its once thriving marine health with the mountains looking down.
The people of Westmoreland live among the lower hills, making their living as from the land and the sea.
Everywhere are trees bearing breadfruit, papaya and mango growing alongside the spiny crowns bearing pineapples. The land gives fruit and sustenance to the people, and that is the way it should be.
If the tree is not owned by someone, its fruits are there for the taking, and the roads are lined with mostly women selling freshly harvested fruits that taste otherworldly compared to anything one can purchase in the grocery store.
A mango just picked at the peak of ripeness, peeled and consumed roadside is very different from the still hard one in the grocer’s aisle.
Food is an important part of the ritual of life here in Jamaica. The people rely on the bounty of the earth and sea for the foods they eat and the foods they sell, eking out what would be, to some, a meager living. But for the Jamaicans it is a living. It is a life.
And it is in danger.
For this island nation the farmer’s life is one that is alternately hard and satisfying, as, like farmers everywhere, they love the land they live on. They respect the gifts that it gives.
For George, one of the organic farmers of the Bluefields Organic Farmers Group, his crop cycle begins with the pimento tree from which comes allspice, given its name for its aroma of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper.
The pimento tree, indigenous to Jamaica, has been documented as used by the Jamaican people since before 1509. In 2006, the export of pimento products was estimated at $5 million annually.
Allspice, ground from the berries, is one export from the pimento tree; however, the real money in the tree is in the oil that is extracted via steam and still from the leaves. It is hard work, hot work in a place that is already hot in mid-May, but George’s pride in his “factory” is apparent.
Where a teacher may make $6,000 a year, for a farmer to be able to acquire the tools he needs to process pimento leaf oil is an accomplishment to be proud of.
One must always remember, this is an island. Everything they have that does not come from the land or sea is imported. Which means expensive.
George showed us how, working with BOFG, he has become an “organic” gardener in that he composts the leaves after the steaming. In the rougher form, when the leaves are compacted, they are used around the base of the banana trees, and George is growing some beautiful banana trees with fruit that is sweet and delicious, with a texture that is firm and pleasant.
George explains that some of the compost is allowed to further decay into soil. That soil is then mixed with manures to nurture his crops of okra, green sweet peppers, broccoli and cucumbers.
George’s farm is tucked at the base of the hill, not far from the origin of the sawmill spring that provides fresh, free-flowing mineral spring water to the people of his community and to his crops. George is one of 28 farmers who have been working with Patrick Marti, a Peace Corps volunteer who came to Jamaica after receiving his doctorate from Cambridge University, where he was instrumental in developing a new coating for hip replacements.
“An odd career path choice,” Marti says. “Earning my doctorate and then choosing to come here, but it’s about choosing a life path versus a career path.”
Saying Marti’s time in Jamaica has made a difference is an understatement. In 2012 he worked with the farmers, like George, to introduce sustainable, environmental and organic techniques that the land can better support.
He has worked with Bluefield Villas and their wide sweeping community efforts, and the Bluefield Bay Fisherman’s Friendly Society, a group of 57 fishermen, creating one of the country’s nine marine sanctuaries, where it is illegal for the fisherman to take fish.
The Caribbean is dangerously overfished. Commercial demand had fisherman using seine nets with holes so small they caught the small fry fish, which they did not throw back. The nets also damaged the coral in lowlying waters.
Then came the use of technology, scuba gear, to go deeper to fish from shelfs deep under water that used to provide a habitat where they could grow in safety.
The demand of people, unaware, looking for fish to sit plated, with head and tail, pulls fish out of the sea before their reproductive maturity. A fish that can sit on a dinner plate is a fish too small to remove from the ocean. It has not gone through its reproductive cycle. It has not spawned new fish, to sustain the fishermen tomorrow.
The 3,000-hectare reserve, the largest marine sanctuary in Jamaica, is part of a growing effort to help offset unemployment and bring the most over-fished waters in the Caribbean back to health.
Bluefields Bay has worked with Marti and the group, donating gas to the fishermen and sitting on the board, along with Braxton and Debbie Moncure, who decided Bluefields was where they wanted to live when visiting in 1977.
Marti worked with the women of the community, helping them to realize a new source of business income in the making and jarring of June Plums, a local plum that had a minimal income life that is now expanded though James.
A group of about 28 men and women get together to create the locally made jams sold to the hotels. It is not a big operation, but fruit boiled on an old gas stove. And it is not just June Plums, which are sweet and tangy, with more stone that flesh, that they turn to jam; they also pick the Sorrell flowers.
Once used only for a Christmas drink made by boiling the flower and adding dried ginger, sugar and, of course, allspice, it is now a source of income for the people. The Sorrell sepal flowers are related to hibiscus, and the drink is similar to the hibiscus drink that is enjoyed by the Egyptian culture. Now, instead of a once yearly refreshment, Sorrell flowers are boiled into a bright red jam that tastes of the island.
Houston Moncure of Bluefields Bay Villas supports the efforts of these groups by purchasing produce from the farms, the jams from the women’s co-op] and fish -– particularly the evasive and destructive lion fish –- to serve to his guests. He is generous to the school where Marti has taught environmental education and literacy.
“What we do is easy to do,” says Moncure. “We choose to support the people of the town, the people whose family members work with us, the people that keep Bluefields a travel destination.”
Serving the lion fish to guests is a resourceful way to help combat a problem created when a pair of the fish was “accidentally” introduced to the waters off of Florida. Those fish have spawned a wave of destruction that can wipe out a healthy coral reef of all the smaller fish in a matter of hours.
“Bluefield’s pays not only for the fish, providing an income for the local fisherman,” Marti says. “They also pay for fish to be cleaned of its venomous spines, allowing them to charge a higher price for the filet. “
Having been served the fish, herbed and poached, with a curry citrus sauce by chef Rose Spence of Bluefields Bay Villas, I can personally attest to the deliciousness of the mild, yet very flavorful fish.
For the children of the town the big Bluefields Bay villas “B” can be seen at the Bluefields Early Childhood Institution, where the Bluefields Villas support Miss Joy’s classroom of 20 children aged 3 to 5.
The classroom does not yet have electricity, and they still have pit toilets for the staff and children, which may seem primitive by our standards, but the children are being given a learning foundation, and a pit toilet is not so strange here.
The children are fed fruits and vegetables so that they grow and develop both physically and mentally. They have toys we may not consider in the U.S.: small motorbike tires that are for jumping and rolling, an old swingset, a seesaw that would never pass American standards but that works just fine for children who see the toy as no more or less than an opportunity to play.
Bluefields Bay Villas, an Early Childhood Institution benefactor, supplied the toilet facilities, replacing the pit toilets, to Mernsville and donated a classroom filled with new Dell computers, creating the Bluefields Bay Villas Computer Lab in the new Belmont Academy High School for Excellence.
The Jamaicans’ ability to live with grace and joy is apparent, mostly in the faces of the very young, which like all young around the world, think mostly of the play, not the work, the day brings.