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Rafting Jamaica's Rio Grande

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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.

Known as the "cimarrones" (meaning wild ones) these African ex-slaves banded together and, from the safety of their remote jungle retreats, raided British settlements for arms and supplies. They also provided a safe haven for runaway slaves and as their numbers and confidence grew the Windward Maroons, as they became known, fought a guerilla war against the British sugar barons that lasted almost a hundred years. Finally, in 1739, a peace treaty was signed with the still undefeated Maroons giving them semi-independent status and a 500 acre parcel of land in the Rio Grande Valley, where many of them still live.

At Port Antonio we left the coast road and swung onto a dirt track leading south into the Rio Grande Valley. The large tracts of cultivated land along the coast gave way to tiny fields tucked into the rugged terrain, but nearly every patch of level ground had a well-tended plot of banana palms.

Located on the windward end of the island, between the lofty Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains, the Rio Grande valley receives an abundance of rain from the prevailing westerlies and its fertile soil is ideal for growing bananas. For generations the harvest was loaded onto bamboo rafts and floated to market down the Rio Grande River.

According to local wisdom, Errol Flynn was the first to recognize the recreational potential of this primitive flotilla. After his acting career folded the infamous screen idol moved to Port Antonio and, before drinking himself to death on Jamaican rum, spent his final years throwing extravagant parties for his influential Hollywood friends. These lavish affairs frequently included a float down the nearby Rio Grande River. The trips proved so popular that Rafting the Rio evolved from a fashionable outing for the rich and famous to a commercial enterprise that continues to attract thousands of tourists each year.

The tall black man who showed us to the river's edge wore a T-shirt that proclaimed he was "raft captain 63". As we boarded his tippy craft he announced proudly that he was licensed and that his craft was certified safe. The industry is now highly regulated, though I noted that none of the rafts carry any flotation gear.

Made from 10-metre long pieces of bamboo lashed together with wire, the raft has a raised seat for two passengers near the back. The captain stands near the front and controls his craft with a long bamboo pole. For most of the way we are swept downstream by a gentle current through broad stretches where the water is scarcely rippled. But the trip includes several small rapids and I am impressed by the skill of our captain as he guides his ungainly craft through the choppy white water.

The 10km trip down river takes about 2 hours, most of it through wild, sparsely populated rain forest. A woman does her laundry on the riverbank while another holds up a bottle of pop hoping a thirsty rafter will stop and buy. A lone fisherman hauls in his nets while balanced on a tiny bamboo raft and kids playing on a nearby bar wave as we pass. We glide past a crumbling rock wall built by the slaves of some long forgotten British plantation owner. A tiny subsistence farm is all that remains of his once grand estate. The rain forest has reclaimed the rest.

From the river's edge to their 2,000-metre summits the mountains are covered with impenetrable jungle – once a hiding place for runaway slaves and a refuge for the Windward Maroons during their long guerilla war with the British.

As we floated down river I noticed empty rafts being laboriously dragged, poled, and pushed upstream. I asked our captain what was going on and, with his tip in mind, he seized the opportunity to tell me how tough it is to support his family on a raft captain's earnings. Each captain builds and operates his own raft. He has to buy the bamboo and pay for inspections. The average life of a raft is only four months before the bamboo splits and a new raft has to be built. Captains also have to hire local men to return rafts to their starting point and the upstream haul takes about 5 hours of back-breaking labour.

"Why not trail the rafts back on the road." I asked.

"They're too long to go around the corners on the road, and besides," he added, "returning the rafts makes work. People are happy to have a job."

I don't know whether Captain 63 is the great grandson of a Windward Maroon, but almost certainly his ancestry goes back to the era of plantation slavery that dominated Jamaican society for 300 years. During its heyday a few thousand British plantation owners lorded it over 300,000 imported slaves. At first the slaves were brought in to tend the sugar estates but as the demand for labour expanded the slaves themselves became a commodity of trade. Jamaica became the main transit point where slaves imported from Africa were auctioned off and re-exported to other New World destinations. Many of the "sugar barons" were absentee owners who reaped the fortunes of slavery from abroad and rarely set foot in the "great houses" on their plantations.

In 1838 slavery was finally abolished in Jamaica, and without slave labour the sugar industry, once the backbone of Jamaica's economy, collapsed. Today tourism has replaced sugar as the country's main source of foreign currency – the grand estates of the sugar barons replaced by grand resorts of multinational hotel chains. According to Nadia, service jobs – despite their abysmally low wages – are providing a better life, security and hope for thousands of Jamaicans. But for others – the subsistence farmer with nothing to sell, the unskilled labourer without a job – for those marginalized in Jamaica's highly polarized society the better life is still only a dream. At least even the poorest among them can claim to be free. Or can they?