It is 6:45 a.m. in the Montego Bay Bus Park near the centre of the city. Clear skies, a slight breeze, sea birds gliding overhead–another adventurous day in Jamaica is about to begin. It will be my first trip from Montego Bay on the north coast of the island to the cooler, central highlands where Mandeville is set among undulating mountains overlooking valleys of tropical greenery.
I am one of the final passengers guided or rather pulled to the minivan/bus which is to travel, “non stop,” to Mandeville in less than three hours. Those of you who have never travelled on a public minivan/bus in Jamaica are in for a real treat. On most such small buses, two passengers sit next to the left of the driver in the front seat. (Remember that in Jamaica, vehicles usually travel on the left side of the road and the driver’s steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle.) The row behind the driver, next to the sliding van door where passengers enter the bus, usually holds three or four people. Every other row holds four people or as many passengers as possible. The tiny aisle allowing passengers to move to the back bus rows is usually converted to an extra seat by placing a small “seat board” across the existing row seats. Of course, that “extra seat,” which does not have a back rest, is where I was located on our early morning journey to Mandeville.
I had been told that this “non-stop” trip was one of the most circuitous, winding mountain journeys I would ever take through the middle of Jamaica. So there was a sense of forboding as the sliding side door was closed. Just before we left the bus park, the side door of our bus re-opened and a very large lady entered the minivan. She was seated to my left in the second row…and what had already been a cramped seating arrangement became one in which juice would have burst from an orange. We were all asked to “small up” to enable the final passenger to squeeze into our row. As fate would have it, seated to my right was another, sizeable lady who would have easily passed the size test of a sumo wrestler. She wore a flowered dress, a baseball cap and carried a large black purse on her lap. Once sealed inside the van, all was silent…until the driver turned on the radio which continued to play a series of rap tunes for the rest of the journey through the lush, mountains of St. James and St. Elizabeth Parishes.
We journeyed from Montego Bay along the Caribbean coast, past Bogue Heights and other suburbs, and made an abrupt turn south at Reading, heading into the mountainous interior of Jamaica. As we wound our way upward through dense groves of bamboo and other tropical foliage, the road beyond Anchovy became narrower and filled with semi-paved pot holes. As we approached each new hamlet or small village, I looked for location signs, but my view was usually obstructed by the two matronly passengers on either side of me. One blind curve led to another, and our driver would lay on the vehicle’s horn for at least ten seconds to warn pedestrians, goats and children of our approach. Soon I felt my back starting to tighten up with no seat rest to support it. Also I began to take much shorter breaths since my rib cage was tightly compressed by my seatmates. After about an hour, (I could not see my watch since my arms were pinned to my sides), the lady to my right struggled to open her black purse and proceeded to pull out a small bottle of what appeared to be some calming elixir. I began to wonder if Jamaicans ever experienced motion sickness, but she sniffed at the liquid in the bottle and all seemed calm once again. Not too many minutes later, the lady to my left, who had not been able to sit back in her seat due to the cramped space, proceeded to place her head down on my lap. She fell sound asleep.
I tried to look out the side window and occasionally, now that my seatmate was asleep on my lap, I did catch glimpses of beautiful green valleys covered in vines and filled with palm, banana and bamboo groves. I also saw brown, black and white-marked goats almost hidden in the tall grasses by the side of the road. Upward we climbed, but I could not read the names of hamlets or clusters of wood & concrete block homes, at times painted in bright colors but often left unpainted and windowless. Looking upward, I could see a solitary home perched high on a mountain side. I wondered how Jamaicans were able to get building materials and necessities to such isolated places…and did any roads reach up to such homes? Certainly only a dirt path connected such abodes to communities in the valleys below.
A twinge of my back muscles brought me back to reality. It must have been around the 90 minute mark when the lady to my right struggled to reach into her purse once again. This time, she took out two Jamaican bills and clutched them in her left hand. My heart began to beat faster with hope and anticipation. Maybe this non-stop bus really did stop, and she was going to leave the bus. Sure enough, it was not long before she shouted, “Driver…stop at di next road.” And he did…and the sliding side door opened and we all got off the bus while the woman paid the driver, picked up her packages and headed down a mountain pathway.
It was a true miracle. For the remainder of our journey, I had a back on my seat. The woman to my left had obviously awakened and was no longer sleeping on my lap. Air rushed in through the open windows and I felt a great burst of energy and elation as I could breathe and move about once again. Once we passed through Santa Cruz with its white-walled and stone churches, bustling Friday market filled with vendors selling fresh vegetables, yams, bananas, coconuts, peanuts, eggs, poultry along with clothes, dvds, bottled water and juice boxes, and streets filled with taxis and other vans, I knew my journey to Mandeville was nearing an end.
Past Goshen and the Santa Cruz mountain range, we entered Manchester Parish on Highway A2. Looming ever closer were the heavily forested Don Figuerero Mountains. As we ascended the switchback mountain highway, the air became much cooler. We were no longer in a steamy, coastal clime, but in the cool highlands of Manchester. It was no wonder that coastal planters and residents of Kingston helped to form Mandeville as a summer retreat from coastal heat. Later, British and other retirees began to settle into Mandeville and a thriving, permanent community and center of dairy farming, citrus and pimento production flourished. I actually tried to picture in my mind what it must have been like for the early 19th Century settlers to travel into the Don Figuerero Mountains on foot and in horse-drawn buggies and carts in order to create the settlement which has now expanded into Jamaica’s fifth largest city.
As our bus reached Mandeville, we passed large homes and gardened hillsides before entering the city limits. And then, in less than three expected hours of travel, our little minivan pulled into the bus park in the city centre. We had arrived safely, with no audible complaints from Jamaican travelers & one Peace Corps volunteer about to head to meetings with PCVs (U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers). Little by little, during the ten weeks of my training and my two months of work at the Montego Bay Marine Park, I am beginning to feel like a real resident of Jamaica. I, too, am learning to be more patient, more appreciative of the beauty and vibrant colors of this island nation. I know I have much more to learn, but each day in Jamaica is a feast of tropical colors, a place where jerk chicken, rice and beans/peas, callaloo, bananas, mangoes, and fresh coffe will tempt your palate, and a land of resourceful people who struggle each day to live, love and laugh with their families, neighbors, and visitors to this Caribbean isle. The road to Mandeville was one day in my journey.
All the Best,