Part 2 - Becoming a rivah girl

And so, in my very first visit to a waterfall, I did what I was raised to do, I silenced myself so I could listen. I couldn’t help but feel like my nana, who grew up by another set of falls in St. Elizabeths. “I never liked the water that much but that sound, listen to that sound!”
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Part 2 - Becoming a rivah girl

[continued from part 1 - Solo in Jamaica]

For the first few mornings in Jamaica I allowed my mind to indulge in the fantasy that I had always lived there, that I had never left the island a few generations ago. The general daydream would go as such – I wake up around 5am, drinking fresh Blue Mountain coffee while I pray and do my morning pages while overlooking the ocean lapping over itself to meet me. While the sun takes its time to rise, I bathe in my outdoor shower, pick my fruit of choice from a generous neighbour’s tree and sit still to the sound of the crickets singing. I know the fishermen and the cooks by name and we quietly greet each other in the rare Jamaican quiet, enjoying the first light of day together. 

In reality, the crickets irritated me (read; scared me), I’ve never been able to stomach coffee no matter which mountain it springs from, my body was still adjusting to the time difference and I’d usually catch either the hotel cooks or the fishermen by surprise while I stood on my balcony in the dark waiting for the sunrise. Even with all of that, despite catching the accidental sunrises and the whispered balcony apologies, I was happy to be on Caribbean soil.  

Once the sun brightened the sky, my morning routine would continue and I’d usually do some yoga on the balcony then treat myself to a morning snack from my bedside table which had become a shrine, of sorts. My friend Courtney, who grew up in Jamaica, wrote me a lengthy list of all the snacks that I should pick up. Within my first few days in Ocho Rios I found my go-to supermarket and stocked up on all the vegan(ish) ones that I could carry. On this particular morning, I sifted through my jamaican snack drawer, saving the crisps and biscuits for later: bun (no cheese), crackers, bulla bread (plain, ginger or pineapple) or fresh fruit. I reach for some plain bulla bread and lay on my bed, reading or writing some more words while the thick cake-like texture filled my mouth with homemade joy. 

When I booked my trip to Jamaica, I had no idea that I’d be venturing outside of Kingston or that I’d experience the multiplicity of landscapes and accents, the range of waterfalls or in fact that I’d be seeing it all alone. All I truly hoped to see was Dunns River. Every other attraction was optional but skipping out on Dunns River was unforgivable in the unspoken laws of the land. After breakfast, I sat by the pool reading Freshwater by Awkaeke Emezi waiting for Mr Reed to pick me up, excited and full of expectation. 

When we get to the entrance of Dunns River, Mr Reed points me in the right direction of the ticket office, telling me to enjoy myself and come back with some stories for him. He drives off with that familiar sound of echoing dancehall drowning out into the distance, eyeballing everyone underneath one of his colourful caps (coordinated with his shirt as always) mainly looking for recognisable faces and I’m left alone with the overtowering palm trees and the distant sound of cascading water. 

Before I get into the thick of the falls, I pass a few vendors selling art and sculptures. I look for a moment too long and then 

“Where you from?”, of course. I answer back “guess” and the vendor, a rasta with hands that look as carved as his souvenir ornaments and a body that looks 20 years younger than it might be, replies without prompt 

“You a English Jamaican” as he continues stacking his ornaments, needing no extra time to assess his confident guess. I ask him how he knows and he simply replies, 

“I can tell. You have yardie blood in you. I can always tell”. 

I walk towards the falls, wondering how he knew but feeling good that there is something in me that Jamaicans can sense and recognise as their own. 

Once I get to the bottom of the falls where the climb begins and the river flows out into the ocean, I hear it. It never occurred to me before but the rushing and crashing of the water was a majestic sound and it represents the opposite of the concrete city noises I grew up with.

And so, in my very first visit to a waterfall, I did what I was raised to do, I silenced myself so I could listen. I couldn’t help but feel like my nana, who grew up by another set of falls in St. Elizabeths. 

“I never liked the water that much but that sound, listen to that sound!” she would tell me excitedly the next day on WhatsApp when I sent over the videos. 

Families and group climbing tours giggled as their loved ones attempted to climb against the rushing water. Jamaicans and tourists alike waded and clung to each other, rocks and trees as they made their way to the top of the relentless waterfall. I climbed alone, feeling like a part of the joyful scene and at the same time capturer of it, both guest and guardian, threading carefully as I passed. 

Once I finish climbing, I make my way over to Malcolm, an artist at the falls who I promised I would come back to buy art from. I kept my promise, as travel has taught me to do, collected my things from my locker and let Malcolm show me around his mobile gallery. 

 “How long have you been painting?” I ask him. 

Malcolm has shoulder length locs that he wears half up and half down. He wears a paint splattered shirt and wears gloves while he creates and sings his favourite songs to himself.

“Since I was 6” he tells me, lining up some more pieces of art for me to look at even though I think I already know which one I want. 

“Everyday I try to paint something, you know? I’m not an expert but I see myself getting better”. A lot of Malcolm’s pieces show off the Jamaica you’re imagining right now. There is the portrait of a squinting Bob Marley, caught mid-song with his locs static in the air. There is a picture of a sun on the horizon of some, probably hotel-owned sandy white beach, there are drummers and locs and round bottomed women and red and yellow and green and it is all very beautiful but maybe, painted for those who see Jamaica in one way only— a luxury paradise to escape to. 

I lay my things on the grass to dry out and walk around barefoot while Malcolm, who calls me Mona with so much delicacy and song in his voice that I don’t want to correct him, tells me about his upbringing in Spanish town. We talk about how he relocated here to Saint Ann and will probably stay, painting for himself and others. It is this sense of painting for oneself, a portrait of one’s own uninterrupted paradise that draws me to the piece I buy. Malcolm likes this piece too, it is a black couple, the man in a wide brimmed hat and the woman in a white turban, both painted with narrow black brush strokes, being led down the river, maybe the Rio Grande or Martha Brae or maybe White River, as I later would. The captain of the raft, also long-limbed and black, wears his locs pushed back by the evening breeze while he guides the  couple through their own waters and their own bush-land on their own island. I imagine that the captain doesn’t need to perform for them. He doesn’t sing and code switch, he just moves in silence with the river and the trees he grew up with and the passengers he will speak to in his own voice. 

“How much is this one?”

In the car journey back to the hotel, I tell Mr Reed all about my day and how I am ready to chase more waterfalls - Turtle River Falls & Gardens, a tropical jungle with 14 waterfalls and indigenous plants, was heavy on the agenda for tomorrow. 

“Turtle Rivers… I don’t hear much about that one” Mr Reed says, slightly shouting over the sound of a growing crowd. 

In the town centre, a Coca-Cola truck and a sound system occupy space and the attention of local shoppers. Mr Reed hangs out of his open window to ask a man making his way across the busy road as slowly as the sun permits, what is happening. Somewhere between passing Mr Reed’s side and reaching the pavement safely he explains that there is a contest and they’re giving out drinks to performers. Mr Reed finds his motive for the rest of the afternoon and invites me, encouraging me to try and win myself a free drink. I turn it down but wish him luck. 

“Well I don’t know about no Turtle River but the Blue Hole is …. You must see it”. 

I put it on my agenda for another trip. The lagoon, or blue hole as local Jamaicans call it, seemed like something to do on an adrenaline fuelled girls’ trip when I next visit. The decided theme for this trip was mysticism and crystal clear river waters.

Where else to explore this than in the formerly known ‘Enchanted Gardens’?

When we arrive at Turtle River, I am surprised at how close it is to Dunns River and yet, just how empty it is in comparison. After I pay my admission, Mr Reed looks around scratching his head, promises me he’ll pick me up in 3 hours and tells me twice that if I want him to come early, all I have to do is call. Solitude and quiet don't bother me, so I assure him that I’ll be alright.

Jordion is my tour guide through the empty mystery that is Turtle River Falls. 

“We have the whole Jungle to ourselves?” I ask. 

He nods his head slightly and explains that we’ll explore the falls, the gardens filled with indigenous plants and then see some more of the grounds. 

Jordion has a youthful glow that prevents you from guessing his real age and the biggest smile that I don’t see until the final third of the tour. At the very start, I learn that Jordion is very knowledgeable, a historian of things even beyond Turtle River. We spend a lot of the tour reasoning about caribbean history, a history that I had never delved deeply into before. His bright yellow tour guide shirt contrasts with his dark skin and blends nicely with the hues of the jungle. He makes his way through the depths of the jungle with the same unthinking skill people walk through the London underground with; knowing every corner and every turn intimately enough to do it with their eyes closed.

We take a tour of each of the falls, Jordion tells me the stories and names of all of them. 

At one point, the falls served as a hotel, later it was a popular choice for weddings. Today it is an under-visited tourist site in the middle of Ocho Rios, or perhaps more adequately a quiet patch of jungle with stories only a few of us are told. We stop at the largest waterfall of the tour so far, Jordion takes my camera without asking and gives me the go ahead to walk into the cascading waters. I step slowly while the water pleats and throws itself over the edge. The lush green jungle sits still, overlooking the fast moving waterfalls that never cease in sound. I point my foot out and let the water nurture me too, realising why this is the land of wood and water. I imagine myself living here too, waking up each morning, pressing my palm against each of the trees as I make my way to the falls to wash my curls in the river water. 

We continue to explore the falls and Jordion, now the certified photographer, captures me admiring the magic. We walk around the winding paths, thick with scents and flowers I had never seen. 

“Do you know what this is?”, Jordion puts the familiar scent to my nose and I breathe it in a few times. It reminds me of lemon, I guess this but Jordion says no. I take the plant from him and sniff slowly again, 

“lemongrass?” he laughs again. 

“Take time inhaling, you’ll know it”. 

I take a slow inhale and exhale the fear that I actually may not get it. It is as if I've lost my connection, if ever there was one, to recognise root and plant by its leaf and scent alone. All I have for reference is bottled or packaged herbs, tea and spices - “ginger?” I guess as it comes to me. Jordion nods, smiling at the plant he is talking to with his fingertips. It takes me a while, but the scent of lemon and ginger tea unwinds and I figure it out eventually. 

“You’re lucky to have grown up knowing these things” I tell Jordion, walking under a whole tree of ginger flowers that overwhelms my senses and makes me feel warm inside. 

“But I want to come to England, see the fast life and the cities,” he tells me. I look around the garden, at all the plants Jordion was raised to point out and find it funny how much we want to experience the other’s normalities. 

After wandering around parts of the tour that Jordion usually skips, we reach the floral part of the gardens. At this same point the historical retelling of the tour has ventured quite far from the island, now we were discussing Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

“Oh I almost always forget to do this part. Women would wear this traditional flower in their hair to reveal to others whether they were married or single. If you’re married, you wear the flower to the left. If you’re single, to the right. If you are unsure, you put it in the middle”

“Okay … so left for married, right for single and middle for.. Complicated?”

“Exactly. Where are you going to put yours?” he hands me a flower.

I dilly-dallied with extra words and fluttered the fuchsia flower between my fingers. Considering that I was travelling through Jamaica solo partly because of a break-up, there was only one place to place that flower. But travelling solo as a female is never the best space to don your singleness so poetically. 

“The middle” Jordion nods at me while I take the time to weave the flower between two of my twists at the centre of my scalp. He laughs at my attempt at making such a beautiful gesture so manual and then laughs quieter when I give up and jam it behind my right ear claiming my decision because “it looks better there”. 

“Let me see your pictures from today!”

At this point I have met a few of the hotel staff and this is our ritual every time I return from my outings. I show them what I did and they pick the best pictures that I should post.

 “Whah? Watch dat picture deh. Yes gyallll” Cindy slips into patwa the way she does when she is excited or needs to make her point known with the other staff members. Bobbie and I laugh “No girl, yuh look good”. 

“You’re not playing games” Bobbie chimes in, between laughs and admin. I flick through some more of my waterfall pictures, realising how happy I look, like a true jamaican girl from rivah. “You should post these but don’t tag your location or if you do” - “wait until I leave to tag the location” I finish the sentence before Cindy. She nods at me, granting approval at my solo traveller habits. 

I ask what is on the menu for dinner and head to my room to get changed. Just before I leave Cindy tells me 

“On Saturday night we’re having our foyer party. It’s gonna be a good night, you coming?”. I have no plans so I say yes, especially since Cindy seems personally proud of the dance’s past successes and even more so because I ignored Mr Reed’s previous instructions about the best dances in Ochi and on which nights. My final Friday night in Ocho Rios was sorted.

The next day Mr Reed comes in the afternoon, minutes after the November rainy season weather starts to ease up. Mr Reed greets Troy, the world’s tallest security guard with the strongest Ocho Rios accent I had encountered so far. 

“I like your african print shorts” he says as he opens the car door for me. I thank him, reminded of something. 

“Can we stop to buy Bandana material?” Mr Reed’s squinty smile returns as it often does when he realises that I am not playing around with my immersive jamaican solo adventure. 

“I know a place where we can get some, I’ll take you after White River”. We make our way to the local river, in the opposite direction of the Ocho Rios tourist sites, driving around fallen banana tree leaves and makeshift stools abandoned during the rain, nodding our ‘no thank yous’ at the vendors selling bagged guinep, humming along to the reggae anthems on Mr Reed’s CD - enjoying the rhythm of this parish I never imagined I’d visit alone. 25 minutes later, we arrive at the famous White River outlined with bamboo rafts and twisting trees where the birds chirp to rival the many different dancehall tunes playing at once. This is where I meet Captain Shaun and get carried upstream, finding new ways to experience rivah.

[To be continued]

The final instalment of Amara's story will be available in Volume 3 coming soon.

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