Covering the south coast parishes of St. James and St. Elizabeth and all within the county of Cornwall, from Canterbury in Montego Bay our outbound trip took us through Reading, Montpelier, Cambridge, Chesterfield, New Holland and Bamboo Avenue. Traveling up and over the western reaches of the Cockpit Country and through the Lacovia and Nassau mountain ranges we toured through Malvern, Southfield and Junction making the steep drop down through the Santa Cruz Mountains via Lover’s Leap and eventually down to the coast to Treasure Beach.
By the end of the day we would have covered over 60 miles of road that coiled and curved, rose and fell, teeter tottered and dipped making for a dizzying but delightful drive through beautiful countryside. The potholes on some stretches were gaping and plentiful, forcing us to dance between and over them. Other hazards on these narrow curvaceous roads included driving behind heavy cargo trucks that wouldn’t let you pass, fast cars tailgating you and wanting to overtake at the same time. The weather though was charming with nothing but blue skies, making for a delightful drive altogether.
Our first major stop was after passing New Holland. This on account of breakfast at an open-hearth roadside “restaurant”, Jamaican style – no menus to read, no waiters to wait, just you, the open pots and the cook/vendor waiting to take your order, all outdoors by the side of the road. Fried saltfish fritters, pepper shrimps (crayfish) and a broth called pip were all on the bubble, hot and ready. Pip, which is a peanut soup without meat, won my attention while my companions had pip and some. The taste was so appetizing and delicious there should be a patent on it. We all enjoyed the outdoor dining experience sitting at a table provided nearby, the vendor more than generous with us and his other patrons. By the time we hit the road again we were rolling.
Our host sitting beside me in the front seat was particularly elated. From the outset of our trip he had been delivering, almost non-stop, a running commentary about this and that, pointing out interesting landmarks while shouting out driving instructions. He told stories, slapped his knees frequently and we all laughed uproariously. Often my stomach ached as I slummed into the drivers seat bent up in laughter. It was a small wonder we didn’t run off the narrow road, blind as I was with laughter at his antics. It was clear he was having a real good time out on the open road and so were we.
Shortly after our stop and prior to reaching Lacovia, we entered Bamboo Avenue, the famous cathedral-like tunnel of bamboo arching over the road. We took a video with commentary while driving through it but in the excitement we unfortunately lost the shot. I remember in my teens when the foliage had been thicker than it was now. There seemed to have been some loss of growth due to age or perhaps hurricane damage. The scene was still eye catching.
Overall, St. Elizabeth was lush and fertile. It was easy to see why this parish had been the historical home of large land proprietors who prospered in logwood, pimento, sugar, rum and cattle farming. Estates of substantial size, such as Holland Estate, were the basis for St. Elizabeth’s initial economic wealth. Also noteworthy is Appleton Estate, now a place of interest for tourist attention. Yet today, available land seemed to be everywhere.
Homes, some completed, some partially finished, dotted the green hills with the more modest homesteads located at road level all visible to us as we drove by. We saw farms of varying sizes situated on slopes, on hillsides and the flat Pedro Plains where livestock also grazed. Scallion seemed to be the cash crop of choice here. It was everywhere. Our intrepid guide and commentator took great glee in pointing out these plots of scallions for our attention, pointing to patches on the right and then to the left and on the hillside, down the gully, straight ahead and over there. Often he would interrupt his own stories mid sentence yelling out whenever he spotted the green sprouts as if they were gold. Not so obvious were the other crops grown here such as cassava, corn and various vegetables. St. Elizabeth seemed so rich with agricultural potential that it is hard to imagine anyone starving here.
We stopped frequently to take photographs of old churches and old cars, vestiges of times past that carried a sense of history. The old churches dominated the land they occupied giving them an apparent place of pre-eminence and centrality, as if they were instrumental in shaping and influencing their respective communities. It was difficult to say what impact these institutions have today but by virtue of the size of the land they occupy, their magnitude and architectural longevity, it would seem that these buildings of worship possess significant meaning. Lore has it that Jamaica has the most churches per square miles anywhere in the world. I cannot confirm this but it is obvious that they were everywhere, sometimes even a stone throw from each other.
Bars have also been cited as having a high density within the Jamaican socio-topographical landscape. Indeed, they amounted to such frequency that it was easy to take their presence for granted, bars having become such an integral part of the social life of primarily Jamaican men. Located alongside the road in the form of shop fronts or as part of a piazza in town squares, these joints open early and close late. Out front it was not unusual to see men sitting, standing, waiting, “kotching”, leaning, seemingly idling the time away. This too was a common sight, the seemingly purposeless sitting and waiting and watching by ordinary folks hunched over with apparently nothing else to do.
Sitting idly too were the old abandoned vehicles along the side of the road or in yards. There was the old Land Rover and the Volkswagen beetle-bug, for example, laying waste like a relic, now derelict but sitting proud in remembrance of their former glory, surrounded and occupied by grass and bush overgrowth as if like a crown.
The Bauxite Industry in St. Elizabeth
One industry here that has seen its former glory has been that of bauxite. The Parish has been a major producer of bauxite since 1960 and the alumina refinery has become a mainstay in the area for close to five decades, evolving through a series of ownership changes since then. Constructed in the 1960s at Nain originally under the Kaiser banner, the refinery is reputed to have once produced nearly 2 million tonnes of alumina annually for export while maintaining an apparently positive social image as a good corporate citizen.
Over the years the industry has been lauded for offering assistance to the neighboring community partners in the areas of education, sports, agriculture, health and community development. However, recently the company now responsible for the plant announced, in response to the global economic turndown, that they would temporarily shut down their plant for at least one year. Nine hundred workers, mainly from the St Elizabeth and Manchester area, were made redundant. A thousand temporary workers had already been released as the company tried to cut its cost. With this the community has gone into semi-shock as unemployment rates have risen, incomes have shrunk and spending is already on the decline. In this context, the sight of idle men sitting makes sense. They are sitting waiting on the edge of a depression, waiting in desperation for the full brunt to hit.
The closure of the plant is also expected to have an impact on the infrastructural development of the adjacent towns and villages. Public water supply for example is apparently generated from this plant. There is fear that this could be cut off. The company’s officials continue to posture and present a good face by announcing that they will continue to make every effort to sustain the community in various ways.
However, there is a subtext that suggests that the relationship between the company and the community is not entirely one of harmony. This community is primarily agricultural in nature. The bauxite industry with its rapacious appetite for land is a competitor for good fertile stretches of arable land. Moreover, the surface mining is an environmental bane destroying vegetation, scarring the landscape and creating dust bowls that can spread its red dust for miles. Other environmental damage stemming from the refinery process is yet unknown although environmental assessments are said to be routinely done.
The community may be dependent on the company as a “lifeline” but at what cost? It would seem that the company, now controlled by Russian based UC RUSAL (65 per cent) as of March 2007 in partnership with U.S. based Hydro Aluminium (35 per cent), has also been dependent on the community in a number of different and important ways.
Has the community received a fair return compared to the profits reaped by the company over its many years of operation? Where does the lion’s share of the profits go? Who sets the market price for bauxite and its derivatives? I could not help but quietly contemplate these questions as we rounded corners, climbed hills and watched patches of the rich red dirt glide by as we drove past in our little Suzuki.
Education in St. Elizabeth
St. Elizabeth Technical High School is one institution that has grown up as a beneficiary of the bauxite industry. One of three major high schools in St. Elizabeth located on the plains of Santa Cruz, it was started through local initiative in the early decade of the 1960s, over time proving that it could compete with more academic schools such as Munroe College for boys and Hampton High School for girls. The 12-acre land where STETHS is located was originally donated by the bauxite company. They also donated the start up funding. Throughout the years this financial support has continued in the form of donations to assist with various facility needs such as infrastructure, equipment, accommodations and curriculum development, particularly in the area of sports.
It would appear that this technical high school was set up initially to be a feeder pool to supply potential workers for the various industries in the parish, particularly the bauxite sector. Paradoxically, now that the bauxite plant is closing the school may dry up and fade as well. The wellspring of donations from the industry is now threatened. Further, a significant number of the students at the school are children of bauxite workers who have been laid off. According to news reports, attendance has already fallen off as parents cannot now afford the cost involved in sending their children to school.
I attended high school over 33 years ago, and at the time would have liked to have attended STETHS as a student because of the athletic talent that they have been able to nurture in soccer and in track and field. I grew up in St. Ann with a high school tradition of my own. But I have always been aware and envious of this school’s dominance in sports. Passing by it now made me nostalgic. I also became nostalgic when I passed Munro College for boys, another school I would have liked to attend as a teenager.
Munro rivaled Cornwall’s dominance in the DaCosta Cup football, both schools outshining mine by far. Nestled in the hills of Malvern, Munro is a prominent boarding school tucked away from the wiles of the world. Having as its motto “A city set on a hill cannot be hid”, the school was established through the Trusteeship of Robert Hugh Munro and Caleb Dikenson, plantation and slave owners in the 18th and 19th centuries, who, in their altruism, willed the sale of their assets be used for investing in schools specifically for the education of the poor. The realization of their dream became the creation of Munro College for boys and Hampton School for girls, situated four miles apart in Malvern.
It got significantly cooler as we journeyed through those Malvern hills, the vista becoming more spectacular as we ascended close to the 2,650 feet above sea level in the highest reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains where the all-boys famous institution is located. Rarified air, fresh and sweet, remote, like a citadel on a hill, inaccessible – that is how it felt as we drove by the gates. For a school that was initiated for the poor, it had now taken on an aura of elitism, perhaps by virtue of its fine accomplishments in academics and in sports as for its ongoing ability to nurture leaders.
As we descended the mountain, as if coming off a high, the tremendous tradition of the Malvern Hills was as intoxicating as the air. Concentrated in that vicinity alone were three of the country’s more outstanding educational facilities, all of which have been in existence for more than 100 hundred years. The third is Bethlehem Teacher Training College, now called Bethlehem Moravian College, which is to celebrate its 150th anniversary very soon. Resting up in these hills is a wealth of tradition, culture and educational excellence.
If St. Elizabeth is Jamaica’s bread basket, it could also virtually serve as the country’s intellectual fountainhead. With this rich resource it is hard to imagine that illiteracy could still exist in this country where the subject of violence has dominated national discourse and where ignorance rather than enlightened thinking seem to hold sway in public and political life. Where have all the talent gone, I wondered? As we wandered down the hill toward the coast, the shrieking answer came as my friend beside me hollered out – “scallion”!
Shortly we would be at Lover’s Leap, overlooking the steep drop toward St.Elizabeth’s southern coastline. It is a breathtaking 1,600 feet plunge, dizzying as you look down on the surrounding panorama spanning places such as Alligator Pond, Port Kaiser and Treasure Beach. The name Lover’s Leap seemed to have been based on legend, a legend that is common throughout the world wherever high precipitous drops are to be found. In this case, the legend is purportedly grounded in the history of colonial slavery and involves the lives of two romantically involved slaves who by jumping together to their death refused to give in to their master’s cruel wishes. They made a tough choice but their action stands as a powerful metaphor as to the price of self sacrifice that is sometimes necessary in the pursuit of freedom, freedom from a cruel and persistent colonial past. Below the cliff, vulture birds known as John Crows flew gracefully through the air relishing in their own freedom to scavenge and soar.
On our way out of the museum that now stands atop the Lover’s Leap cliff we took a photograph of the lighthouse, which like a sentinel overlooks the entire scene.
Soon we would be in Little Ochi, the south coast answer to the north coast’s Ocho Rios.
Caption: Old curches dot the countryside, in some cases showing the neglect caused by economic hardship. Here each face on a parish church clock tower keeps its own time.