GREAT HUTS: Paradise on the Edge
My dream for a parcel of Boston Cliffs atop Boston Beach, Port Antonio
By Paul Rhodes, M.D. , January 2002.
Great Houses are known for their spaciousness, architectural refinement and history within the slave based economics of the colonial plantation. Though slavery has long been abolished and Jamaica enjoys her independence from Great Britain since the 1960’s, several plantations function as profitable agricultural businesses while retaining the great house for managerial housing or as a grande hotel. Perhaps the finest example of the hotel-farm is Good Hope Plantation and Great House in Trelawny, Jamaica.
Jamaica is rich in architectural styles, particularly Victorian and Georgian style buildings. Of course the most common type of house is the simple one or two room wooden board house with tin roof and yard. While harsh economic realities dictate the disrepair of many of these family dwellings, most have a character which transcends their modest construction. The shining faces of the energetic and hopeful children -Jah pickneys -the religious fervor, warmth and good humour of the adults and elders who live inside and the lush vegetation and azure seas, kiss and beautify these board house- huts, common in Jamaican town and country.
Sadly lacking in Jamaica, are remnants or re-creations of the simply elegant thatched huts, granaries, shrines and other expressions of daily life, ritual and celebration of the West African villages and countrysides from where the majority of Jamaica’s ancestral population came in the 17th and 18th centuries. Absent in Jamaica is the hut and building styles of the Jamaican natives, the Tainos, a population all but eradicated by slavery and disease. Despite the plethora of King David stars which adorn homes and roadside stands across the Island, notably absent are the Hebrew and Islamic artistic elements of North Africa and Mother Ethiopia from which so many Jamaicans feel spiritually, if not physically, descended.
While long threatened by western influences and the misperceptions of superiority of European building styles (misperceived by both white and black) Africa and her people express function and art in the native building styles fortunately preserved in countless cities and villages across the African continent. While threatened as are all ethnic, religious and economic-system minorities and non – ‘mainstreamers’ –many of Africa’s Africans still construct and preserve their native dwellings built and decorated with materials of mother earth – natural woods, mud, dung, clay, bamboo and palm, fabrics and rugs, bones, and rocks, pebbles, etc. Many popular pictorial books celebrate the people, traditional homes and arts of the African people, notably the two volume photo journalistic ‘’African Ceremonies” and “African Canvas”, a celebration of women’s annual, elaborate geometric painting of mud huts in equatorial Africa.
While African –Colonial style tent and hut Safari villages abound in East and South Africa for the well to do international traveler, few Afro-centric resorts are built for travelers to the Caribbean, a major branch of the African tree of life. Arguably, Jamaica – the jewel of the African Diaspora – has little of African art to show.
Admittedly, slick ‘super-clubs’ like Sandals aggressively market “all-inclusive” packages and many if not most travelers want the look and comfort of luxury hotels by the sea while separated from the town and Jamaican people. In fact, with security risks overblown in the press and by the Tourist Board, guests are encouraged to not leave the resort grounds. Would not an authentic ‘all inclusive” seek to include African creativity, community and connection to the mother land?
In fact, native Jamaican tourism professionals expect the Europeanized and modern versions of Xamaca, the land of sea and wood. Wood and thatch are overcome by steel and glass. To illustrate this point, I shall not forget that when I announced to an executive of the Jamaica Tourist Board that I would be building huts, strong and reinforced, but huts, she repeatedly queried, “do you mean villa’s ?!” “You mean cottages, garden apartments?” “No, I don’t mean villas! Huts and Tents, man, huts and tents,” I retorted. Does Jamaica really need more high risers and Italian Villas?
Many island homes in the Caribbean are built with homage to the land, the elements, the breezes and Mother Africa. A tent village in St.John is one example. And even super-clubs and large hotels sport thatched dining areas, bars, and seaside ‘gazebos’ though often lacking in authenticity.
Perhaps a leader in the Afro but seemingly more Asia -centric building styles in Jamaica, are the many of the guest houses on the cliffs of Negril. They often serve guests who are successful business people, yet happily retain a core of 50s-60s-70s beatnik- ‘hippiedom’ along with memories of old Negril before the tourist boom. These Afro-natural retreats have lovely but unmanicured gardens, communal dining nooks and seaside-cliffside thatched huts and tree-house-stilted huts, reestablishing the Garden of Eden. Arguably, the finest example of this resort type is the very beautiful Tensing Pen in Negril, which inspired me. Might I add that I visited Ricks café in 1974 when it was a table and hammock and met the original Rick?
Jamaican Tourism is centered about Montego Bay (Mo- Bay), Negril and Ocho Rios (Ochi).Greatly underappreciated is Jamaica’s northeast coast. Here sits Port Antonio and her deep harbour and many outlying beautiful beaches, Blue Lagoon and waterfalls set before the foothills and peaks of the John Crow and the Blue Mountains, and the historic villages of the Maroons. The forest and foliage are mature, lusher and green here in Portland parish, fed by the generous rainfall and sunshine. The air is cooler, ever kissed by the fair trade winds. Europeans particularly, Germans and Italians favour Port Antonio in the East (Porti) while Americans seem to favour the West of Jamaica. Tourism in the East has not kept up, in part due to the distance Kingston’s airport, a 2 hour ride away, and for better or worse the super-clubs delayed entrée to the area. And of course tourism has suffered worldwide due to the horrific events of 9-11. And maybe tourism in Portland is going to catch up but hopefully never be as busy as Mo-Bay. Recently, Butch Stuart of Sandals fame acquired Dragon Bay Villas. (Sadly he closed it and scores of local persons lost their jobs). Other big scale investments in the business of tourism in the East have been made, in particular the sale of Navy Island for high end homes and a resort and the development of the new Port Antonio Marina to welcome the big ships of the world and encourage world class sailing to destination Porti.
To date, no thatched hut African style community exists in Port Antonio and environs, although Portland’s rugged and virginal terrain begs for one so natural. Personally I am crazy about the cliffs of Negril and the natural huts of Tensing Pen but have fallen in love with Portland. Fascinated and comforted by the art and building styles of Africa, I seek to build a small African retreat in Port Antonio. I have for long volunteered as a physician in Jamaica and recently became licensed in Jamaica. Moreover, with the overwhelming need for rest and positive change of life, a sabbatical in Jamaica and building of a vacation home beckons strongly. Admittedly, the building of a home in Jamaica or anywhere else for that matter is no vacation. Nonetheless, when a parcel of land that I admired for more than five years was acquired by National Commercial Bank from the estate from the late Heinz Theinweibel who died a premature death in the Trident Castle (Ms. Ziggy Fahmi’s castle actually but that’s another story), I jumped at the opportunity. Fortunately, no one else bid at the auction, perhaps because the were not able to see the potential or were afraid of the Jerk Center ‘element.’ (Actually the jerk stalls and the local crafts people and merchants there will add to our guests satisfaction.) Not the least of my motivation was to build an idyllic home (Afro-natural style) for myself and an exquisitely beautiful young woman I had been dreaming of and wooing over the Internet. I would surely capture her love and we would adore each other always. I shall always recall that when I lifted this slight and beautiful woman in my arms and I carried over over the threshold of this idyllic Great Huts to be, she exclaimed, “I wish to live and die on the land!” But she did not mean with me (Paul)! The girl is gone (she ran away with the Chef of San San Tropez) but the land is paid for and is all mine. Though waiting for the deed was exasperating and scary, having it finally feels wonderful! And I am in the process of acquiring the adjoining parcels now.
I have pictures and drawings and even clay models of these wonderful huts to be. Now with the help of talented Jamaican builders and artisans I shall work and work hard. And my building plan has been modified. In considering the hardship and expenses and construction (laborers showing up, materials not coming or being stolen, cost rising above estimates and hurricanes blowing away roofs),I’ve got a new twist. As I began to research tents for my temporary quarters, I discovered that tents can be permanent, dramatic and finished with paint and wood details to look African and natural and old world. Tents surfaces can be painted with tribal designs and symbols as African mud houses are. And I will add the Hebrew art forms for Jewish-Rastafarian natural fusion. We the Tribes of Israel! Afro-Semitic fusion.
African Safari villages often include tent dwellings. And they can be set up in hours and dismantled quickly in preparation of tropical storms and hurricanes. No loss of thatch roof. Just take the house down yourself before Mother Nature does it for you! And I have been lucky to “find me” a tent expert, Ian Gibson, whose business in Kingston called Tent City has a stellar reputation of renting, designing and selling the best and strongest tents. Ian will ably assist me in building my tent African style village. So my little Paradise on the Edge will be on the edge of what is ‘normal’ building style not to mention that they will site near the edge of Boston cliff. My Black friends ask, “why huts? “ My White friends shriek, “a tent?” Too bad they can’t see it. Come closer to the edge (of design and the cliff) man, and dream a little.
Jamaican Great Houses are beautiful. Huts and tents are open aire and seaside and Irie. So huts and tents are GREAT also. We now build a likkle village on the cliffs of Boston Beach –
GREAT HUTS:PARADISE ON THE EDGE! Yah mon.
Paul Shalom Rhodes, MD Hut keeper and Physician