Jamaica Calling

As with so many things in life, there really was no question. When my 23 year old friend, Luke, informed me that he had bought a coffee plantation in Jamaica, I knew I would go. Even though Jamaica was not high on my places to visit, I knew if I had the opportunity to experience a non-touristy Jamaica, I would. It was just a matter of when.

For several years, every summer I would see Luke and he would tell me how fabulous his winter life in Jamaica was, and that I must come and visit. Being tied up with expeditions to the Polar Regions just made me want to go that much more. Finally this spring, the timing worked out. I had nothing on the schedule and I was in dire need of some time away. Escaping an Alaskan winter has always been easy for me and if I can go to an island with beaches, all the better. Prior to leaving, I knew very little about Jamaica, other than marijuana seemed to be the official island plant. The rumors around the small town where I live, were that Luke was a running a marijuana plantation and not a coffee plantation. Like any travel experience, things never turn out as you expect, and this trip would be no different.

When I landed in Montego Bay and saw Luke at the airport, I felt like I had walked right onto the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Luke looked somewhere between a Rastafarian and a drug lord. His outfit was complete with a Bob Marley T shirt, mirrored aviator glasses, and long out of control curly black hair. He introduced me to a small Jamaican man that was his friend and I presumed, sidekick, named Mikey. We jumped in his truck and were off cruising the streets of Montego Bay. The great thing about Luke is he has no schedule while in Jamaica, which is typical in the Caribbean. He was game to do whatever, whenever I wanted. I was there for the experience and to see his coffee plantation. So we drove the 45 minutes into the hills, to his 40 acre farm.

Luke would deliver what I was seeking, an experience of the non-touristy side of Jamaica. His farm is high above a cluster of small scattered towns on the southwest side of the island, near a town called Whitorn (pronounced Whitan by the locals). Luke is known as the “big man on the hill”, as his sheer physical size towers over just about any and every Jamaican, and he is the only white guy around. Much to my surprise the plantation is beautiful. It sits high in the hills with views to the ocean in the west. Tall palms line the driveway with banana, mango, grapefruit, orange, bamboo, and papaya trees all within easy walking distance. In addition, Luke is growing vegetables that get sold at farmers market every weekend. The property straddles the ridge of a mountain, so it is not flat, easy workable land. Someone has put a lot of effort into getting things to grow here, not to mention moved countless thousands of rocks that seem to pepper the landscape.

But what I really want to see is the coffee and where exactly are the fields of marijuana that I’ve heard about? Luke’s reply is, “there is no coffee”. I don’t really understand, as this is supposed to be a coffee plantation. Luke has explained his marketing plan to me for years. Grow the coffee in Jamaica and sell it in Alaska, a perfect outlet. He has a company name, logo, and business plan already worked up. But there is no coffee. Luke explains that in Jamaica, to be able to grow and sell coffee, you need special approvals and permits. Years ago the property was a working plantation with thousands of coffee plants. But the previous owner stopped taking care of the coffee and all the plants died off. The permits are all still valid and indeed, Luke owns a bona fide coffee plantation, with not a coffee plant in sight. But, before the end of the season, 2000 plants will go in the ground and the coffee business will be underway.

And there is a marijuana patch, but it is small and not for sale, but personal use only. After all, it is illegal in Jamaica, despite nearly everyone smoking it like cigarettes. I suspected Mikey to be the drug dealer as he looks the part, but Mikey is a farmer by trade and Luke’s hired hand, caretaker, cook, protector, and guide. Mikey has spent his entire life farming in these hills and even still today his family farm is just up the hill from Luke’s. He is up daily before the sun, weeding the vegetables and getting things harvested to take to market. By the time Luke and I get up he has fresh greens picked and cooked up into the most delectable breakfast imaginable. By nightfall he has fresh fish prepared and fresh squeezed mango/papaya juice for us, while we watch the setting sun light up the landscape.

And Mikey is always with us when we go anywhere. He helps translate the slurred local lingo. He helps us find our way on rough, old gravel back roads. And he even sits at the beach with us, even though he doesn’t know how to swim. Our days are spent exploring waterfalls, trails, and streams, places Luke has never been. We snorkel at Bells beach, jump off 40 foot cliffs south of Negril, and explore the coast along Ochos Rios. It was all beautiful and fun, and everything one would expect of a Caribbean vacation.

I had learned a fair bit about Mikey, but on the road to Ochos Rios is when I really started to respect this quiet man. I became intrigued when he told us he had never been to Ochos Rios, which is just on the other side of the island, maybe 3 or 4 hours away. He’s 40 years old, not much older than me, and was born and raised in Whitorn. Luke has been giving him swimming lessons. I’m dumbfounded…….how can you be raised on an island within 30 minutes of the ocean and NOT know how to swim? He had never looked under water, so I began teaching him how to use a mask and snorkel. Mikey explained he was raised in the hills, farming, and his parents didn’t have a car, so they didn’t get to go to the beach. Mikey had never been in an airplane and thus had never left the island. All of this seems so alien to me, as I explore the far reaches of the globe at every opportunity.

At a fancy hotel in Ochos Rios, my curiosity is peaked and I ask more questions while we watch the sun work its way across a blue sky. Mikey had never stayed in a hotel, much less one that costs $140 a night, more than a weeks wage for Mikey. It has been 7 years since he’s had a hot shower. Mikey's highest level of education is the 6th grade. He didn’t even see a TV until he was 18 years old! As I absorb everything that Mikey tells me, I become even more impressed with this humble, smart man. I’m amazed at the contrast between how Mikey was raised in Jamaica and how I was raised in Iowa. What would life be like without a TV, a hot shower, an education, travel, hotels, a car? The things that you and I take for granted in our lives are not even available in other people’s lives. Yet Mikey doesn’t live in poverty, Mikey lives within his means. A lesson many people could afford to learn in this day and age. He makes and lives on less than $100 a week! He doesn’t need all those luxuries to be happy; a car, a TV, etc. He’s happy where he is at and with what he has. In the end Mikey lives simply, he’s happy and easy going, while being open to new experiences and opportunities. One of the most rewarding aspects of traveling is the shift in perspective it offers, and Mikey certainly provided this for me. Within the next few years Luke will fly Mikey to Alaska to experience an entirely different perspective from his own on Jamaica.

My next trip to Jamaica will come when the coffee beans are ready to be harvested. As for this trip, it wasn’t really what I expected. Indeed the beaches and island were fantastic. But it was Mikey that really made the trip for me. In the middle of Jamaica, in the middle of his life, Mikey is still farming up in the hills. Living simply and being happy.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2006 Troy Henkels