After a week of cloistered luxury in the Riu Ocho Rios we booked a minivan tour to Port Antonio in hopes of seeing something of Jamaica beyond the manicured hotel grounds. Its only 106 km from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio but the incredibly potholed road along Jamaica's north coast is a maze of detours, which our driver attacked as though he was in a drag race. Nadia, our rapid-fire commentator and guide, explained that we would have to hurry in order to get back before dark. She would be making only three stops and there was no time to pause anywhere else.
Somerset Falls, the first of our three stops, turned out to be a gated theme park with caged birds and a small stream cascading through a series of modest plunge-pools. Frenchman's Cove, our second stop, is a beautiful small sandy nook but it too is set aside for visitors; I saw only one black couple among the crowd of tourists on the beach. Breaking out of the prescribed "tourist adventure" was clearly not in the cards. I gave up trying to take photos from the lurching van – sat back and watched the scene go by.
We sped past long sandy beaches, banana plantations, sugarcane fields and market gardens. In rural villages groups of men hanging out in front of local cafes are a symptom of Jamaica's 20 per cent unemployment rate, and enclaves of luxurious houses scattered among the primitive dwellings of subsistence farmers highlight the enormous gulf between Jamaica's rich and poor. The absence of any unemployment benefits or other social safety net has spawned a plethora of desperate business ventures. "Bar and Grill" signs on tiny dilapidated shacks offer everything from jerk chicken to ganja and hair braiding. The roadside is dotted with makeshift craft stalls, fruit stands, and individuals with a few bananas to sell, waiting by the side of the road in the vain hope that someone will stop and buy.
As we raced on toward Port Antonio and our final destination in the Rio Grande Valley, Nadia gave us some historical background on the Maroons whose fiercely proud descendants still live in the rugged Rio Grande country.
When Christopher Columbus "discovered" Jamaica in 1494 the island was occupied by Arawak Indians, a gentle peace-loving people who were no match for the Spaniards. Within a few generations the Arawaks were wiped out, either killed outright, worked to death as slaves, or felled by European diseases. Having exhausted the local labour supply the plantation owners began importing slaves from Africa, but the Spanish made little effort to develop or defend the island. When British forces launched an invasion in 1655 the Spaniards fled to Cuba without a fight. But before they left they armed and freed their slaves.