Cool Runnings

Text: Tim Nerhood • Photography: Tim Nerhood

Many of us in the generation of twenty-somethings, arbitrarily assigned the letter "X" for a generational nickname, sought out other cultural identities to fill the void that letter symbolizes. One of the most popular of these subcultures has been the Jamaican folk religion of Rastafarianism. The counterculture of the sixties seemed to be manifested again in the Rasta anthem "One Love," and its simple wisdom attracted many of my generation. With this background providing a framework of youthful magic and innocent mystique, my lovely Sarah and I explored the Jamaican countryside during our vacation (and the occasion of my sister's wedding) in Negril.

Negril is a seaside town with an economy so closely linked to tourism that I learned quickly to be wary of persistent peddlers soliciting us for everything imaginable. Using newly developed haggling skills, I decided to rent a motorcycle for transportation around the beach - not to mention giving me the opportunity to unwind a throttle through some of the world's most breathlessly beautiful countryside.

I tackled the task of persuading Sarah to hop on the back, and armed with the most beautiful of human faults - blind trust - she mustered the courage. For $ 35, we rented a gassed up Yamaha 175cc in questionable condition, but at least the horn and turn signals worked, and the engine made familiar noises. The rest we left up to 'Jah,' the Rasta cognomen for the almighty, and our own reserves of blind faith.

Acquainting ourselves with left-side driving, we sped off that morning on the main drag running down Negril's famous Seven-Mile Beach and soon got over our initial alarm at the quaint but oddly polite tradition of "beep-beeps" coming from other vehicles just saying hello. The road soon split inland and we turned east toward distant green mountains; simultaneously, it deteriorated into potholes and dirt, not to mention local foot traffic. Dodging people, cars, and enormous holes in the road, and trying all the while to keep us upright on the left-hand side caused me to consider cutting the trip short and returning to the safety of our cute beach cottage.

Soon, however, the roads showed signs of repair and I was leaning left through a long, slowly bending curve over the top of a small hill. At the crest, we saw far-reaching fields of sugarcane spreading from the foothills into a fertile valley below. Sarah leaned in with me, and as we gracefully glided back into an upright position, she told me how much she enjoyed riding along with her arms wrapped tightly around me. "Just wait until you dance through your own curve!" I shouted back, hopefully planting seeds that will someday put her in control of her own two wheels.

The road took us through the sugarcane valley, past the Appleton Plantation, where world-famous Jamaican rum is made. Intense scents and splashes of tropically colored plants and trees amidst a sea of green awed our senses.

We began following signs to Roaring River, a hilltop farming village nestled on the slopes of three mountains named Jack, Jill, and Bill. From the depths of the earth, flowing out of the middle of the mountainsides, is the Roaring River. Touring the village on foot, we passed a 1,500 year-old gum tree, and an artesian well where divers had attempted measuring the depth, but stopped short of finding the bottom 350 feet into the bubbling cavern.

Swimming in the river where portions of Brooke Shields' "The Blue Lagoon," were filmed, we saw clearly beneath the surface, and opened our mouths against the current, freely drinking in the cool, pure water coming from deep within the mountain. This is truly a paradise, known to the Jamaicans as a little piece of Zion.

After the tour, we remounted, pointed the bike towards Negril and rode the 100 kilometers to the coast feasting on views of plantations, some in ruins, some still in operation, but all reminders of the sugar and spice trade that spawned the culture of this island nation over 350 years ago. The potholes and manic driving style through the villages along the way didn't frighten us anymore, and we enjoyed long stretches of solitary, sixth-gear riding over the foothills.

Upon our return, we pondered the poor living conditions of the people in this beautiful countryside. How could a place so beautiful, fertile, and peaceful fail to provide its inhabitants all they could need or want? A history of exploitation may be the answer and the experience broadened our previously sheltered understanding of the conditions many less privileged cultures endure. I commented that these observations would have been far less obvious on a tour bus. Our connection to this paradise, its land and its populace, presented itself more directly and with significantly more impact through two rubber tires connecting us to the roads we explored. We can't wait to return.