Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and gorgeous scenery comes in many forms – snow capped mountains, gleaming lakes, immaculate gardens.
But to most people paradise is a tropical isle, and Jamaica is undoubtedly the loveliest of them all. “The fairest island eyes ever beheld” wrote Columbus. Or to quote the ‘South American and Caribbean Handbook’ – “It would be difficult to imagine a greater variety of tropical scenery in an area of similar size”.
Jamaicans who know no other country take its splendour for granted. But Jamdowners abroad realize what they are missing and can never be wholly satisfied by foreign surroundings. They always yearn for the sensual lushness and intoxicating beauty that made Andrew Salkey exult – “I saw my land in the morning, and O but she was fair!” Every country has attractive areas, but Jamaica’s loveliness is never ending. (Except perhaps for Kingston!)
In my younger days I visited the Greek islands. Samos was said to be the prettiest. And it was pretty. But nothing like Jamaica. The scenery was nice, but of a kind. There were no wonderfully varying vistas with each bend in the road, no endless variety of trees, no infinite shades of green. This was it? Apparently yes. Yet it couldn’t begin to compare to what I was used to and took for granted! Then it dawned on me. If this was the most scenic of the famed ‘isles of Greece’ which poets have rhapsodised over for centuries, my homeland must be special indeed. And the more I read and travelled, the more obvious it became that, at least scenically, there really was ‘nowhere better than yard’.
But alas this incomparable beauty is dying. Or rather being killed. Like children of a profligate millionaire who have never learnt the value of money, we Jamaicans take our island’s unmatched natural beauty for granted and carelessly waste it. Many Jamaicans dismiss environmentalists as alarmist, killjoy, out-of-touch-with-reality tree huggers. But our rate of deforestation is among the highest in the world, and over 90% of our coral reefs are dead – statistics which are not meaningless to those who remember that Haiti too was once a lovely country. A visit to Negril now can help bring such reality even closer to home.
Negril’s seven mile beach was once one of the world’s wonders. In parts it still is. To lie on its soft white sand and swim in its crystal clear waters on a pleasant day is to experience a transcendental perfection of spirit and to be convinced that paradise really did once exist, for here is a living glimpse.
But Negril continues to lose beach frontage at an alarming rate. In some areas the beach is still fairly wide and healthy. But in others structures that were once well up on the beach are now lapped by water. If this continues much longer there will soon be no beach at all. A glass bottom boat trip will graphic proof that the coral reefs really are almost dead. The once brilliant profusion of tropical pinks, blues and pastels is now a depressing spectacle of dirty brown and grey morass. Instead of schools of glittering fish there are only a few black striped “sergeant majors”. No wonder scuba diving tourists complain there is nothing to see.
It is sheer mental laziness and short-sighted greed that has brought Negril and much of Jamaica to this pass. Building hotels without a proper sewage treatment system can never be anything but a recipe for future disaster. But lack of planning seems to pervade every strata of Jamaican life. So for decades our governments allowed hoteliers to put up buildings and bring in the tourists even though there was no way to dispose of the refuse that these thousands of people created. Except to simply pump raw sewage back into the sea each evening. Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Even animals know better than to defecate where they eat.
Some years ago the government finally decided to put in a proper sewage system, strongly prompted by US authorities. (Ambassador Gary Cooper was even castigated publicly for telling us the basic truth that our beaches were polluted – how ridiculous to blame the messenger for our own folly.) Officials have already admitted it is only a primary treatment plant. So it removes visible faecal matter and makes the sewage clear, but does not remove the bacteria that kills the reefs – a typically cosmetic Jamaican solution that does nothing to address the real underlying problem.
No one who loves this country can visit Negril and not get a bit angry and frustrated. The contrast between what is and what could be is painful to contemplate.
Our mental laziness extends even to the product we offer tourists. Jamaica is, or at least used to be famous, for our succulent fruits. But a promised “perfect fruit plate” at one of our upper end resorts varied between horribly sour and utterly tasteless. Has Jamaica lost even the ability to grow sweet pineapples, oranges, melons and mangoes?
Jamaica’s main claim to fame abroad is our music, and few places have such a rich folk heritage. What could be more natural than to create song and dance reviews giving an overview of Jamaican music and traditions from kumina to mento to ska to rocksteady to reggae to dub to dancehall? Anyone who has seen the Tropicana Show in Cuba knows what can be done and what a memorable experience such a musical extravaganza can be. But our hotels are content to play the same ten Bob Marley songs over and over and present soca music as ‘Jamaican folk music’. And we wonder why Cuba is taking away our tourists!
As I lay floating in the wonderfully refreshing sea during a trip to Negril, I looked up at the mild blue skies and thought how glad I was to be alive. Such things were naturally far from my mind. But as I regretfully drove out the sad thought arose that if things continue as they are, the paradise that was Negril will soon be just another lost memory.
Written by Kevin O’Brien Chang
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