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Experiencing Irie MAG
At first glance, the sleepy fisherman’s village of Treasure Beach looks like a sterile, dusty town along Jamaica’s arid southern coast. However, this hamlet proves to be the agricultural center of the island – vivacious, both in terms of its inhabitants and the land itself. The region is famous for its red dirt and red people, a result of an Irish shipwreck, legend says. The town is populated by simple folk, quiet farmers and fishermen whose families have lived in Treasure Beach since the emancipation of the slaves. It is here that my fondest moments of childhood have been spent.
Every other summer, a hoard of American girls ventures down into the Jamaican countryside to visit their grandmother, and perhaps on an even deeper note, to connect with their heritage. That flock consists of my two younger sisters, my two older cousins, and myself. Submerged in the American culture the rest of the year, every visit allowed us the chance to see outside the fishbowl of our world. The five of us, accompanied by my uncle, arrive about two weeks before my parents and other relatives join the vacation bandwagon.
Upon arrival, warm, sticky air greets us. Air conditioning is a rare luxury in Jamaica, used by few a property owners (my grandmother, one of them) and high-end resorts. Outside the airport, an urban orchestra awaits: a medley of car horns, rapid-fire patois, and rumbling reggae music. Arrival has always been one of my favorite parts of the journey – the immersion of the senses and the anticipation of something great.
The two-and-a-half-hour drive through the mountains to my grandmother’s house is one of the most nauseating yet scenic routes I have ever mustered my stomach to travel. Roads wind through endless bends in the mountains, cars so close it’s a miracle they pass each other without one being sent tumbling down a leafy trench. Greenery and flowers burst from the mountainside, fuchsias and yellows making a stark contrast to the emerald and jade canvas of the forest. Sylvan, a local tour guide and close family friend, skillfully maneuvers the van through the treacherous territory. The rickety van endures, in the chugging style of a little train, through the canopies of the island’s interior, stopping for the occasional goat or stray dog to cross the road and bolt into the underbrush.
At the last bend, where green vegetation and brown soil juxtapose with bright red earth, everyone looks out the windows and down the hillside from our perch. Etched into the land are innumerable houses, from shanties to beautifully designed white houses with shingled roofs and self-proclaimed bravado. Here live people with stories and laughs to share.
Once in the countryside, television is no longer the primary form of entertainment; family and the outdoors beckon. The first task of every day is to walk onto the veranda and eat an orange, mango, pineapple, or all three, while listening to a local radio station play a mixture of Motown oldies and quiet reggae. The wind blows gently, the sounds of bleating goats and rustling leaves lilting through the air. My uncle skims the newspaper while my grandmother peels endless homegrown fruits, passing them to us.
After breakfast, the American gang, joined by some of our Jamaican friends, jog to the pastures – that resemble the savannas of Africa – to feed the goats and rams the rinds from our meal. The landscape is dotted with grazing animals, scrubs, and the occasional zinc shed.
Perhaps my most sensory experience of all is running through the expanse of family land, rolling yellow plains dotted with statuesque lignum vitae trees, calloused feet pounding red earth. We spend our days with only goats and each other for company, constructing tree houses and feeding the animals. The feeling of dirt and grass give you a sense of revitalization. We stay in the fields until an adult calls us, or it’s time for the “evening dip.”
“Evening dips” are a nightly affair in which cousins and friends pile into the back of the pickup truck and careen down the hill to one of many beaches, singing songs, and enjoying the simplicity of life. Our favorite is the wildly unpredictable Frenchman’s Beach, with its notorious riptides and monstrous waves, capable of overturning fishing boats. By age six, we all learned to master these perilous waters. We spend these evenings body surfing, dodging waves, and battling the currents and each other in splashing wars. The swim itself isn’t the ritual; the tradition is spending time together in a place we all love.
On the ride back, pedestrians and store owners are returning to their homes after another quiet day. In the truck, we entertain ourselves by playing “Sweet and Sour.” The rules are simple – we smile at passersby, and their reactions warrant them the title of sweet or sour. A large majority are deemed sweet.
The grit and unshakable happiness of the people of Treasure Beach amaze me. Those in the ramshackle houses help those in the cobbled ones, and those in the cobbled houses look after the ones who can’t afford a home at all. Even those who are poor surprise you with some measure of wealth, whether a beloved family recipe or the best fishing boat. The dispositions of the residents are positive; everyone has something of value, material or intangible. It amazes me that if my cousins, sisters, and I walk to the store, people will call out and wave to Miss Blair’s granddaughters. It is the sense of belonging I love, the sense of family and a life without limits.
When I’m there, everything feels all right; irie, a Jamaican word meaning just that, describes it perfectly. I am at peace with myself and the world while I’m hidden away in my safe haven, the peaceful and lovely little town of Treasure Beach.