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Rafting Jamaica's Rio Grande



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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.