Halfway Tree is already bustling as I hop onto the mini bus bound for Portland. The bus, intended to seat 20 is holding around 30 people as it pulls out of the line of colourful vehicles and onto the road. It is hot and dusty as we make our way up Constant Spring Road. Finally, the construction, the loud noises and the business lined streets break as we enter the cool green hills. I immediately feel at ease and relax a little in my seat. The man next to me, half toothless, age lines crossing his face is going to Port Antonio. He must be in his sixties, has lived his entire life in Saint Catherine but somehow this is his first time going to Port Antonio, a visit to an old friend he says. We chat a little bit more about farming as a way to earn a living, about the state of the rivers in Jamaica and about Canada, my home country, until he doses off.
In peace, I watch the mountains around us, dense and lush in infinite shades of green . Sometimes, a river cuts through and I see the water winding its way through the mountains just like our bus. We pass Friendship Gap, Castleton Gardens, countless other villages, clothes hung up on the lines, people sitting sleepily in the shade in this persistent sun. Finally, we emerge from the mountains and land on flat ground. We pass a cemetery which is quiet today. Often, coming home on a Sunday, the cemetery is filled with mourning people. We pass the fields of St. Mary bananas cocooned in their blue bags laden with pesticides, as their suckers eagerly await their turn to shoot up and grow their own bananas. Finally, the ocean, turquoise and glistening guides us along for some time.
We arrive in Buff Bay. It looks and sounds like the other towns along the coast bright, colourful, music audible and voices loud. I make my way to what I assume is the taxi stand asking a vendor where the Charles Town taxi can be found. Conveniently, it is right across the street. In fact, there is a taxi waiting to go.
I hear my destination before I see it; drumming carries softly to my ears. The Charlestown Maroon Festival and Conference. Held here, for the 11th time, on ground owned by Maroons since the 1700’s.
The site features the Buff Bay River. It is still, thankfully, clean and clear. I waste no time to jump in; the perfect refuge on such a feverish day. I think about how this river has flowed for centuries, maybe even millennia before this moment and will flow for a long time after. I think about the Maroons who swam in this same water not just as an escape from the sun but as a life-source, fresh enough to drink and cook with, cool enough to bathe in and abundant enough to fish. Maybe a place to worship. And I think about all of the rivers, like this one, criss crossing Jamaica.
In the little Maroon museum there is a three dimensional topographic model of Portland. I try to locate this exact spot on the model. Impossible, of course, on this scale but it still gives me perspective. What stands out to me on the model is the number of blue lines representing rivers starting on the mountain tops and coiling their way down. The museum has some other displays showing some of the tools that the Maroons would have used made out of cast iron or wood. There are books and posters informing about the Maroons, indigenous people of Jamaica. From the museum I can hear the faint sound of a lecture, which strikes me as ironic as lectures perpetuate oral history and knowledge something so important to Maroon culture.
The drumming calls me away from the museum and I try to find the circle. I make my way through the vendors colourful and diverse. The pungent, acidy, smoky smell of roasted coffee calls me over. This vendor also has castor and coconut oil clouded with substance that is filtered out in factory made versions. Marijuana is displayed between rows of beaded necklaces and shining earrings, its crystals reflecting the sun. I locate the circle. The sharp slap of some drums overpowers the rumbling bass of others, shakers sharply accompany. These goat skinned drums have not changed much since the Maroons played them bringing the tradition directly from West Africa. Some like the djembe are played by familiar, calloused hands while others by thin wooden sticks. I rest and listen for a while.
I rediscover the river one more time before leaving this land for the day. I float looking up to the sky before closing my eyes and breathing deep. In this second, in this moment I am marooned.