Beyond the Caribbean crystal waters

It is a weird feeling to spend Easter seated for ten hours on a plane travelling from one side of the Atlantic to the other. With no traditional food, no specific greetings and no family members next to me, this Easter made me realise how strongly I relate my cultural and religious identity to the city where I was born. The fact that I was the only one, from the group of students boarding the plane for Jamaica, to celebrate Easter on that Sunday, made me think of what renders such a day a celebration; sometimes there is an entire ceremony built around it (when the location and familiar context allow it); at other times, it has to be only my mind and my collection of thoughts – a purely spiritual act with nothing else expressing itself out there.

Nevertheless, I boarded the plane with excitement and ready to make the most of my unusual Easter holiday. My trip to Jamaica was the main component of a mandatory field course taken as part of my university degree. Its aims were the study of the coral reefs surrounding the northern coast of Jamaica and the assessment of the effects which local geology and industrial processes, combined with the particularities of water flow in the area, have on the general state of these reefs. I therefore perceived the country from a double perspective: as a future scientist, examining the state of the environment, and as a tourist, as the location perfectly ticks, for me, the “exotic” box.

The crystal-clear, turquoise waters of Discovery Bay were the main setting of our first week in Jamaica. As a child, I was fascinated by images from encyclopedias, depicting the subaquatic richness of coral reefs, with their incredibly varied and colourful species of corals, fish and so many other marine organisms thriving as part of the ecosystem. In Jamaica, I have snorkeled for the first time with the hope of discovering a similar picture. What I have seen, however, bears the fingerprints of so many disasters affecting the reefs since the 1960s, all theory which I have read about in preparation for the trip, but which struck me as real when I arrived there. Hurricanes, mass mortality of sea urchins, overfishing, coral disease, bleaching, tourism development, all contributed to a decline closely monitored, and sadly, still not reversed. Thus, the main area behind the reef crest is covered in seagrass, algae and brown corals, with very sparse fish specimens. Approaching the reef crest, the picture became more similar to what I saw in encyclopedias. I felt that swimming above those underwater massive, colourful coral colonies made me the discoverer of a wonderful type of Atlantis, one for whose creation humans bear no merits. It also made me think what an amazing habitat it would be, was it not so unfortunately affected over the decades by so many factors. Whenever I had a free hour, I put on my snorkeling gear and went swimming. It filled me with calm, undulating my way through the corals while swimming next to a bank of fish, acting like an unwanted visitor – as they all swam away from me – spying on their alien way of living. It filled me with fascination for these intricate forms of life so much older than our species, silently rising up their monuments under the waves, as we rose ours on land.

The underwater scenery, the enticing blue, warm ocean and the beaches and resorts I saw as we moved along the shore to another location, at the end of the first week, are the ideal combination for a perfect postcard picture. They are also, I presume, the definition of the Caribbean for many tourists playing such an important role in Jamaica’s economy. The reality of their inland settlements, however, hit me, by comparison, in a way I would not have expected.

The journey by minibus, from our relatively isolated location (close to Runaway Bay) to two of the main towns in the region (Brown’s Town and Ocho Rios) was an adventure on its own. The fact that the minibus has 16 seats, let’s say, does not mean that the drivers can’t take up to 8-10 more people on board. The speed at which it travels is, sensibly speaking, at least dangerous, given the complete lack of road signs and the great abundance of curves. Reaching our destination safely was the only thing I could think of when I was on the bus; having to go through the experience again was all I was thinking of when preparing to take…a quarter of a seat on the minibus, for my journey back to the hotel.

Once in the actual towns though, I was taken aback by the absolute poorness of the places, the state of the buildings, the dirtiness of some streets, the dominance of a very minimalistic lifestyle and the attitude of men. Very simple dwellings, badly asphalted roads, no monuments; ridiculously sad signs on almost half-demolished buildings indicating, for instance, a “mall”. It made me think of how dramatically different such definitions are depending on the location where I find myself. The state of the towns surprised me a lot, because while on the bus, I saw elegant, beautifully coloured, rectangular two-store houses with miniature colonnades isolated among large patches of forest between localities, and I expected to see a lot more of them in the towns. Except for markets though, I could not set my eyes on anything worth taking a picture of. It made me quite nostalgic, for I was thinking about the immense discrepancy between nations which have owned empires and drew their wealth from mines and plantations worked by slaves, and nations which were part of those empires. First conquered by Spanish in the 16th century, then by English in the 17th century, Jamaica bears the marks of its history as a territory of sugar plantations, worked by slaves until 1838. Its current state made me aware of how far our society is from ensuring equality of opportunity. It also made me think of Jamaica in terms of a world so different from the one I am used to, further separated into two other universes: that of the tourist resorts, and that of the actual communities.

In Ocho Rios, we were so assaulted by taxi drivers and so disappointed at the surrounding scenery, that we left the place in half an hour. The extremely harassing attitude of the taxi drivers (similar to that of the minibus owners trying to cram as many people as possible in their vehicles) is potentially explained by the general poorness of the nation, making so many people desperate for obtaining money no matter what. It is, however, only part of the problem. As a white woman walking on the streets of Jamaican communities, I have never before felt that I am perceived in such a sexualized way. It was extremely uncomfortable for me to see that, regardless of the place where I was, men were staring without the vaguest subtlety, addressing me remarks that I had no intention of understanding. Every man I passed by.

At the beginning of our second week in Jamaica, we travelled a lot inland, to sample various rivers in order to assess the influence of geology and anthropogenic activities on the water chemistry. These rivers ultimately enter Discovery Bay as underground vents and thus impact the coral reefs. In Cockpit Country, a central region dominated by limestone, I hiked along a forest trail used by the British army when fighting escaped slaves, then I swam in a “blue hole”, an oasis surrounded by steep forested cliffs, where cold groundwater comes to the surface. The simplicity of localities and resources gives ample opportunity for the visitor to admire the beauty of the nature. The landscape, though, is not varied, as the majority of the island is covered in lush vegetation, with tall palm trees, banana trees and other tropical species. We also visited the Ewarton bauxite mining facility – a huge spot of orange in a landscape otherwise dominated by the green of the vegetation and the blue of the Caribbean Sea. It was an enlightening experience to take a glimpse at the front end of a production line, rather than just at the end products. I would describe it as mostly a blooded landscape, covered in rusty dust, dominated by huge craters tearing the crust, with trailers digging their jaws into the earth and discharging their loadings into trunks.

Jamaica is, for me, a cocktail of contradictory flavours, some of which are soothing and calming, others which scandalize me, yet others which trigger a process of self-questioning personal values and lifestyle, everything spiced with an almost unintelligible accent and with rhythmic, but quite aggressive, often too loud and tiring music beats. Superimposed on this variety of perceptions, there is the vivid reality of the degraded coral ecosystems, which continue to be impacted by nutrient-rich freshwater discharges (supporting algal growth and thus inhibiting coral regrowth), overfishing and tourism. A sip of this cocktail was eye-opening for me from both a personal and a professional point of view. It tasted of a foreign culture, of a superb sea and of a sad scientific story, and it was another unique page attached to the diary of my rich student life.


*Iulia Ștreangă studiază Environmental Geoscience la University of Edinburgh.

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