Father-son Jamaica trip filled with teachable moments

Mayfield Falls, near Negril, Jamaica
Bob Berwyn and his son Dylan enjoy a refreshing moment in Jamaica’s Mayfield Falls.

Negril Yoga Center offers a quiet respite in the lively seaside resort

By Bob Berwyn

When I read some time ago that Negril, a tourist hotspot on the west end of Jamaica, has an ordinance barring any building higher than a palm tree, I filed it away as an interesting ecotourism fact.

I was also intrigued when I heard that the funky beach town on the western tip of Jamaica is a hot spot for psychedelic Caribbean sunsets. I’ve long believed that everything should stop – at least for a few minutes – when the day begins and ends. Sunrise and sunset are logical moments to interrupt our self-absorbed routines and give thanks for the time that we have on this planet, and maybe to consider life in a larger cosmic context.

“Gotta go there, sometime,” I thought, filled with visions of the fiery orb sinking behind mounds of orange and purple-streaked clouds.

My Jamaica trip finally came together a couple years ago when I planned a Thanksgiving visit with my son to the Negril Yoga Centre, a low-key, flower-filled oasis of calm in the lively seaside resort, which throbs to a reggae pulse 24-7.

So after a red-eye flight and mellow shuttle ride from Montego Bay past businesses like “The Uprising” hair salon, the “Every Little Thing” store and a veggie “Rastarant,” I’m sitting on the fire-engine red steps outside Grace’s Chickie Cabin under a lime tree on a steamy night, listening to the richly textured soundtrack of Negril: Tree frogs croaking out their love songs, snippets of reggae music drifting over from the bungalows next door and car horns beeping furiously.

Every now and then there’s a lull when it’s quiet enough to hear bat wings swish through the thick, sweet air. Somehow, It’s all syncopated on a grand scale, a World Beat for travel in the global age. Dylan, my eight-year-old, is asleep inside, and I chuckle to myself, thinking about his initial reaction to our home-away-from-home.

Negril Yoga Center, Jamaica
Dylan wants helps out with some of the landscaping at the Negril Yoga Center with a borrowed machete.

The Octa-cone

“So, have you ever slept in a round room before?” I ask him after checking into the yurt-like cabin.

“Well, technically it’s not round, Dad,” he answers after taking a quick look around. “It’s a cone on top of an octagon.”

I laugh at his reply and give silent thanks to Mrs. Drogsvold and Mrs. Maynard, his third-grade teachers at Summit Cove Elementary. The recent geometry lessons have obviously paid off.

“It’s an octa-cone, Dad,” he says, giving the cabin a name that sticks for the duration of our 10-day stay.

Whatever it’s called, our temporary pad is a study in grassroots architecture, design and interior decorating; simply framed with rough-cut two-by-sixes, topped by a corrugated metal roof and painted in dazzling Caribbean pastels: Sunny yellow, hot-pink and lime-green. It’s cozy and clean. A rectangular lean-to tilts off to one side, enclosing a kitchenette and bathroom, sloping down, Hobbit-style, to an outdoor cinderblock shower stall. For the first few days we have to watch our balance stepping down into the tilted kitchen. But the doors fit squarely, the windows are screened tight, and there’s with a quiet, powerful fan to stir up the muggy air.

And traveling in thisĀ  father-son configuration, I’m free to fully enjoy the funkiness of it all. I revel in staying in a place that’s on the budget end of the spectrum and don’t have to pretend that I’d rather be staying at the posh resort up the road. The semi-communal granola vibe suits me just fine. I feel at home as soon as I see the crisp and clean tie-dye cotton bedspreads.

This place was built to fit on the land, with plenty or room left for banana and breadfruit trees and coconut palms. After a few hours, we’re on a first-name basis with most of the staff. They buy their produce and meat from nearby farmers, and we, in turn, buy our evening portion of jerked chicken from the guy who does the yoga centre’s landscaping by day. Our hot water comes from a rooftop solar collector. The money we spend here on lodging and food goes directly into the pockets of locals, not into the coffers of some far-off multinational real estate development corporation.

Mayfield Falls, Negril, Jamaica
Enjoying the cool waters of Mayfield Falls during a day trip from Negril.

Beachside
I wake up early in the morning when I hear a few thumps and rustling leaves outside the door. Pauline, one of the cooks, is knocking limes out of the tree with a stick. After brewing a cup of Blue Mountain coffee, I wander the grounds. Ominous-looking land crabs lurk in their tunnels, plotting world dominion no doubt.

Dylan wakes up a little groggy, but after a smoothie and Johnny Cakes and smeared with guava jelly, we venture toward the beach. Soon we find out what all the beeping is about. Before we even have a chance to cross the road, four taxi drivers honk their horns and swerve in to offer us a ride.

Both sides of Norman Manley Boulevard are lined with fruit and souvenir stands, hotels, restaurants, bike rental shops and jerked chicken joints, not to mention enough rainbow-colored sarongs and T-shirts to trigger a flashback in even the most reformed hippie. To the west is the famed Negril beach and just inland is huge wetlands complex called the Great Morass, fed by the North and South Negril rivers, where a few ‘gators still roam.

Negril has taken a free-market approach to addressing transit needs along the seven-mile resort strip, which is also the main coastal highway on this part of the Connecticut-sized island. Instead of running a bus up and down the linear stretch, it seems everyone is a taxi driver. Scores of “official” Toyota station wagons and vans zoom by, along with many more unofficial taxis; residents and passers-by making a few extra bucks by picking up whoever seems to be wandering along. And no matter how old the jalopy, it’s got a killer sound system, thumping out reggae at full volume.

“Yeah, Mon!” Becomes our password, and we count up all the ways people use the clenched-fist “respect” greeting, which can be anything from a vigorous salute in the morning, to a limp and half-hearted wave of fingers in the heat of the day.

The beach offers the usual assortment of activities: Parasailing and jet skiing, glass-bottom boat tours and snorkeling on a somewhat ravaged offshore reef. Despite a reputation for hedonism and spring break debauchery, there are plenty of families around, and he quickly makes new friends. One day, he launches a pick-up football game with local school kids in the supermarket parking lot. Another evening, the teenage waiter at Sonja’s restaurant joins us for a game of Uno after we polish off our conch-stuffed patties. Dylan’s PSP is an instant equalizer, and while I’m not a huge fan of the electronic game, I learn that it’s a thumbs-on manifestation of global culture – instantly giving youngsters some common ground.

Xtabi Resort in Negril Jamaica
Cliff jumping at Xtabi Resort at the West End in Negril, Jamaica.

Teachable moments
And I have to cut him some slack. It’s not that easy being dragged all around the world. One day, you’re happily sucking down tater tots in the school cafeteria, 24 hours later your dad is asking you to check out a package of pig tongues in the grocery store, or to sample some curried goat stew. I’m relentless in finding teachable moments. We play Boggle to keep him thinking about words and spelling, and when he asks if he can buy some Bob Marley wristbands, I tell him he first has to learn who Bob Marley was, why he was important, and how music, art and poetry can be forces for social and political change. A bit heavy perhaps, but he takes it all in stride.

One day we set out to explore Half Moon Bay, a small beach about six or seven miles north of Negril. It turns out to be well worth the trip. We spend the day sharing the tiny cove with just a handful of people, not to mention four or five friendly dogs that follow us into the water and play fetch for as long as we want.

The limestone ledge on one side of the bay is perfect for snorkeling, cut deeply by body-width inlets. We spot a puffer fish and some kind of purple-spotted flounder, along with usual assortment of gaudy yellow and blue fish. The little restaurant serves a mean grilled snapper sandwich, the Red Stripe is icy cold and the sunset is the best of the trip, the sky and ocean melting together in a curious blend of fire and water.

Several times we head to the West End, where we jump off limestone cliffs and snorkel into dark sea caves. Near the end of our stay, we venture inland for a day, hiking up the Mayfield River to check out a series of plunging waterfalls and crystal clear pools, a refreshing change from the briny ocean water.

Half Moon Bay, Jamaica
A couple of locals use branches to paddle a kayak out to their fishing nests in Half Moon Bay.

All the while I wonder about the palm tree ordinance. It seems that it’s true; I can’t find a single building that rises above the height of the tallest palm. But it takes more than that to create a sustainable tourism economy. It’s a slogan, really, sort of like a ski area buying wind power and calling it good, while ignoring all the other impacts of resort development and sprawl. And Negril is clearly struggling with many of the demons associated with easy tourism money. The resort strip along the beach is fairly clean, since each hotel and restaurant employs staff to rake and sweep the sand. But the community is struggling with a serious garbage problem. We find it piled up in great mounds near the roundabout junction that passes for a downtown, although a recently completed recycling center should help a bit.

The garbage, clearly a byproduct of the tourism industry, raises a larger issue in my mind about sustainable tourism. It’s clear, after visiting this lovely and friendly country, that we, as tourists, are a big part of the equation. It’s another teachable moment, this time for myself. A take-home lesson for Summit County, where, despite all our battles to manage development, preserve open space and protect wetlands, we are losing the larger war. And mostly it’s because we just can’t resist the lure of more and more easy tourist dollars. We save what we can in small bites, but we haven’t been able to say “enough is enough” in any meaningful way, and we probably won’t until we make our guests full partners in a far-reaching conservation effort, rather than just seeing them as wallets with legs.

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