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The Rhumba Box

While waiting in the immigration line at the Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay a few years ago, I heard the unmistakable sound of a mento band. They were playing a familiar tune, Take Her to Jamaica, and as I waited, I tapped my feet lightly and hummed along.

The singing got louder as I exited immigration on my way to pick up my luggage from the carousel. By now, I could see the musicians – three or four of them. One was playing a rhumba box, a percussion instrument that I hadn’t seen in years.

Rhumba box, Jamaica
Rhumba box

The rhumba box is a two foot square wooden box. It has a hole in the center to which is attached five metal strips that are tuned to different pitches. At that size, it’s also a seat for the musician and allows him to reach the metal keys.

The rhumba box originated from the African mbira, or thumb piano. It made its way to Cuba, where it’s called the marímbola, then to other countries. In Jamaica, it’s synonymous with mento, the folk music that is a precursor to ska and reggae.

Sitting on the rhumba box, he strummed the metal strips to hold the rhythm for the guitar and the maracas players as they belted out the words to another song, This Long Time Gal.

I watched many stoic faces relax and smile as they heard the music. I was still humming to myself as I walked out of the airport.

Click here to listen to the sound of the rhumba box and here to hear a mento version of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab by the Jolly Boys.


I’m linking this post to the weekly photo linkup, Travel Photo Thursday, at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Be sure to head over and check out other photos from locations around the world. Enjoy!


5 Reasons to Visit St. Thomas, Jamaica

I never made it to St. Thomas, located on Jamaica’s southeastern coast, until I was in high school. As part of our graduation celebration, our teacher organized a day trip around the island that brought us not to Morant Bay, its historic capital, but to Prospect Pen to view the Jamintel Earth Station* that had opened some years earlier. I still have the grainy photo of us posing primly in our navy school uniforms with part of the satellite station in the background.

St. Thomas, the 9th largest parish on the island, is bordered on its northern end by the Blue Mountains. Its diverse landscape includes mountains and wetland areas. The island’s only east-west river, the Plantation Garden, is located in the parish.

Bath Fountain plaque, St. Thomas Jamaica
Plaque at Bath Fountain

St. Thomas was established in 1662 and named for Thomas, Lord Windsor, who was governor of Jamaica at that time. It was known then as St. Thomas in the East. The name it was shortened to St. Thomas around 1866 when the number of parishes was reduced from 22 to 14.

St. Thomas has been home to the indigenous Taino Indians, Spanish, British and Maroon communities. Archeologists have found remnants of Taino settlements, dating to 650AD, in several locations in the parish.

Continue reading “5 Reasons to Visit St. Thomas, Jamaica”

Jamaica @51: Rice and Peas or the Jamaican Coat of Arms

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Today, Jamaica celebrates her 51st year of Independence. There have been many changes in the country since 1962, notably in the way we eat.

Take rice and peas, for example. (Rice and peas is affectionately referred to as the Jamaica Coat of Arms, though I haven’t been able to find out why.) When I was growing up in rural Jamaica, we had rice and peas only on Sundays and on special occasions, like Christmas or Easter. Now, there’s rice and peas on almost every restaurant menu every day of the week.

The Easter bun and cheese that we had only at Easter is just as commonplace.

Rice and Peas with vegetables
Sunday meal – rice and peas with vegetables and meat

Back then the patty, a meat-filled turnover, was our main fast food and a popular lunch item for school children. With international chains like KFC, Burger King and Domino’s, along with the homegrown chains, Island Grill, Tastee, and Juici Patties in almost all fourteen parishes, we have a variety of fast food restaurants to choose from now.

Sundays still are special. For most of us, it’s the day we pause, bring family around the dining table to share the meal.

But it’s not always rice and peas. I’m no longer wedded to the Jamaican Coat of Arms on Sundays because I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. But I wouldn’t plan a Christmas or Easter dinner without it on the menu.


How has your eating habits changed in the last twenty years?


How to Make Rice and Peas


3 cups of rice
2 cups of fresh red kidney beans (or Pigeon peas or a can of kidney beans)
5 cloves of garlic
1 can of coconut milk
1 whole Scotch bonnet pepper
3 scallion (spring onions)
3 sprigs of fresh (or 2 teaspoons of dried) thyme
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of black pepper



Wash and soak peas overnight or put to boil in a medium saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Add garlic and a little salt to taste.
When peas are soft, add coconut milk and seasonings – thyme, Scotch bonnet, 2 sprigs of scallions, black pepper, and remaining salt, if needed.
Let cook for a few minutes then add the rice.
Cover and cook until the rice is tender and there’s no more liquid.
Plate and garnish with remaining scallion. Serve with your choice of meat or alone.

Everald Brown Dove Harp – Jamaica

It wasn’t hard to miss this colorful object, called a dove harp, that was part of an exhibition on view at the National Museum of Jamaica (formerly the Institute of Jamaica). I thought I recognized the work as belonging to one of our local artists but I wasn’t sure.

A quick look at the caption confirmed that the object was the creation of intuitive artist, Everald Brown, popularly called “Brother Brown.”

Everald or Brother Brown's Dove Harp
Dove Harp

Continuing, the caption noted that Brown’s “art and spirituality are bound together and are distinctly indicated through his work. His art work is the visual representation of a generously all-inclusive world view, in which just about everything is regarded as being spiritually meaningful. Brother Brown’s musical instruments bring together sound and vision, the two most important components of his mystical experiences. Their shapes and decorations are laden with intricate symbolism and were originally meant for collective ritual use by his church band.”

Everald Brown, a self-taught artist, was born in Clarendon, Jamaica in 1917. He embraced Rastafarianism and Revivalism and founded the Assembly of the Living, a mission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in Kingston.

In 1973, Brown moved his family from Kingston to a community in rural St. Ann where they lived off the land. There, his art and spirituality flourished and he painted and carved his dreams and visions of the world around him. He also created handmade musical instruments, like the dove harp, and star banjos.

Following his death in 2002, the National Gallery of Jamaica mounted a retrospective of his work in 2004. It featured more than 100 paintings, carvings and musical instruments.


This week, I’m linking up with Travel Photo Thursday, which Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox organizes. Be sure to head over and check out other photos from locations around the world. Enjoy!

Hope Botanical Gardens

Hope Botanical Gardens or Hope Gardens, as most Jamaicans call it, is a popular spot especially for those who live in Kingston and surroundings. It’s where they go to relax on Sunday afternoon, or to enjoy nature.

With the nearby Hope Zoo, Hope Gardens is also a favorite destination for school trips – it’s on almost every school’s excursion schedule.

Small fountain at Hope Gardens
Entrance to the lily pond

Hope Gardens sits on 60-acres of the Ligunaea Plains at the foot of the Blue Mountains. The property, originally part of Hope Estates, was acquired around 1881 and experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, assisted in laying out the formal gardens. They introduced several varieties of endemic plants, rare flora and exotic species.

Gazebo at Hope Botanical Gardens
The gazebo

I’ve read that Queen Elizabeth II was so impressed by the Gardens that she gave permission for it to be called the Royal Botanic Gardens, Hope.

Hope Botanical Gardens
Part of the gardens

Through a series of unfortunate incidents, including devastation from hurricane, vandalism, and mismanagement, Hope Gardens fell into disrepair in the 1980s. It is now nearly back to its former splendor.

Hope Botanical Gardens
Blue Mountain forms a beautiful backdrop to the gardens

Hope Gardens has a lily pond, sunken gardens, orchid house, bougainvillea walk, and other attractions. It’s a great location for bird watching. Several species, including doves, egrets, Jamaican mango, yellow- and black-billed parrots, and different varieties of the hummingbird (Jamaica’s national bird) can be seen in the park.

Hope’s expansive space and lush environment make it a popular venue for weddings, reunions, picnics, festivals, yoga classes or a leisurely stroll.

Hope Botanical Gardens Particulars

Hours: Daily from 6:00 a.m. except on Labor Day and Hero’s Day.
Current Entrance Fees: Adults $5, Children (3 – 12 years) $3


Today, I’m linking up with Travel Photo Discovery‘s Travel Photo Monday. Be sure to check out other photos from around the world.


Friday Focus: Kristi Keller

This week’s Friday Focus visits with Kristi Keller, a Calgary native who fell in love with Jamaica and has visited the island about twenty times since 2003. Kristi has also spent months at a time in Jamaica.

Kristi Keller
Kristi relaxing on the dock at Pelican Bar, Black River

1.     Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Calgary, Canada.  As a youth I was a dancer and a country girl, spending most of my time riding my horse.  As an adult I spent my time being a single mom and working for a communications company, and then for the municipal government.  My corporate time totaled roughly 15 years.  Life was pretty normal and uneventful and I just blended in….until I started traveling.

2.     What brought you to Jamaica?

In 2003 I won a trip to Jamaica through a local radio station here in Calgary.  Before that I had never considered traveling abroad at all.  Travel was not on my radar other than visiting family in the USA.

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Kristi at Blue Hole waterfall, St. Ann

3.     What were your first impressions of the country and how did those match up with what you knew or had heard from others?

Since I had never experienced a foreign country or a different culture EVERYTHING about Jamaica struck me from the very first minute on the ground.  Landing at a tiny airport (back then), stepping off the plane onto the runway, the amazing greenery and palm trees everywhere I looked, and the heat.  In that first week on the island I was part of an organized group and had to stay with them and participate in the excursions they took us on, but I distinctly remember wanting to get the hell off of that bus and go explore!  I wanted to know everything and everyone!  From that first trip I knew that I hadn’t even seen or learned a fraction of what Jamaica is all about.  Staying in resorts and spending time with an organized tour group doesn’t let you learn anything except how to eat, drink and shop a lot.

4.     What made you return, how many times have you been back and how long, on average, do you stay?

I returned to Jamaica 2 months after my initial trip and the reason I went back so soon was because I received an offer I couldn’t refuse by a Jamaican police officer I briefly met.  He said that if I ever want to come back to Jamaica he would show me what the island was REALLY about.  It was a done deal and I went back, stayed at a home in the countryside and toured the entire western half of the island.  I went to places that tourists don’t normally go, shared a yard with a family of donkeys, met people I would have never met if I had been staying in a hotel, and just absolutely fell in love with the island. 

I’ve been to Jamaica twenty times (and counting) since 2003.  My trips evolved from 7 days, to 10, then to 14 and eventually I quit my job  and left Canada for months to stay in Jamaica.  I’ve done that twice now.

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Crashing waves in Hanover

5.     What does your family think of your visits?

For that second trip where I flew back to hang out with a complete stranger, my mother thought I was on crack.  She was very worried about my safety, knowing that Jamaica has a bad/dangerous reputation.  Now, after all these years and trips I think my family just doesn’t care anymore.  My mother wonders how I can just keep going back to the same place every single time and wonders why I don’t want to discover something new.  But what she doesn’t understand is that every single trip IS new.  If you do Jamaica the way I do Jamaica there is no sameness in any trip.  I drive around the island solo and discover something new every trip.  I stay in local guest houses (not hotels), experience new things to do, meet new people and learn something new every single time. Continue reading “Friday Focus: Kristi Keller”

Devon House Revisited

I’ve written about Devon House but only recently returned to do a tour of the Georgian style house, which is located in Kingston. Devon House was built in 1881 for George Stiebel on a property that was known as Devon Penn.

Devon House, a Georgian mansion built in Kingston in 1881
The fountain

Popularly described as Jamaica’s first black millionaire, Stiebel, the child of German and Jamaican parents, was a carpenter, shipper and gun runner. He struck gold after he invested in a mine in Venezuela and made a fortune, returning to the island a rich man. Stiebel got involved in politics and business, bought 99 properties — it was illegal to own 100 or more – and built Devon House.

Devon House lower vestibule
Partial view of the upper vestibule at Devon House
Vestibule with wing backed and planter’s chairs

The house features classical Georgian lines – simple form, detailing and symmetry. It was built entirely of brick and wood with high ceilings, carved transoms over elegant doors, and ample louvered windows that circulate air efficiently throughout the house. The furniture is a mix of Jamaican, English and French antiques, and reproductions. The large 35-foot ballroom is, without doubt, the mansion’s showpiece with its Broadwood piano, Wedgwood ceiling and English chandelier that Stiebel bought.

Devon House, the Palm Hall featuring painted murals on walls
Palm Hall, with partial view of the living room
Formal dining room at Devon House
Dining room with Chippendale dining table

Stiebel married Magdalene Baker in 1851 and had two children Sigismund, named after his father, and Theresa. When he died in 1896, the mansion passed to Theresa, then Theresa Jackson, the only surviving child. It was later sold to the Melhados in 1922, then to the Lindos, who lived there until 1965. Devon House was turned over to the government of Jamaica. Today, the mansion, which sits on 11 acres, is known as one of the premier destinations in Kingston to enjoy culture, art and heritage, the lush grounds, and its very popular “I-scream” (ice cream).

Master bedroom with canopy bed at Devon House
Master bedroom
Partial view of the master bathroom at Devon House
Part of the master bathroom
A room for games at Devon House
A room for games
A sewing room with fainting couch at Devon House
Sewing room with fainting couch
Wedgwood ceiling and English chandelier at Devon House
The 35-foot Devon House Ballroom with Broadwood piano

The mansion has been restored several times, the latest in 2008. Many of the old buildings from Stiebel’s time are still in use. For example, the Grog Shoppe was the horse and carriage stable and blacksmith’s shop; the Courtyard Shops were servants quarters, and the current Devon House Bakery used to be the kitchen. When I visited recently, workers were replacing the wooden shingles on these buildings.

The welcoming entrance to Devon House
Entrance to Devon House
The expansive lawn at Devon House
Devon House lawn

Devon House Particulars

Tours run on weekdays only with the last tour at 4:30 p.m.

Cost: $10, per person, includes ice cream.

Devon House is located at 26 Hope Road in Kingston.


This is my submission to Travel Photo Thursday, organized by Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Be sure to head over and check out more photos from locations around the world.

The Gumbay Drum

The gumbay drum caught my attention at the Accompong Maroon Festival in January. I’d never seen a drum that was small and square and looked more like a stool than a drum.

As I was leaving the festival, I noticed a small stall with storyboards explaining how gumbay drums are made. There were also several drums on display. The gentleman inside introduced himself as the son of the master drum maker.

Gumbay drum maker's son
Son of the master drum maker
Maker of the gumbay drum
The master drum maker
Sanding the gumbay drum
Storyboard of the master drum maker

Although simple in design, the gumbay drum has several parts. The inner part of is called a baby, the outer part the frame. The top, which is usually made from the skin of the female goat, is the membrane. Maroons use the gumbay drum in their rituals and traditional ceremonies. They are also used to induce a trance state and to communicate with the ancestors.

Storyboard explaining the making of the gumbay drum

He explained how the drums were made — the design looked simple enough for a professional. I doubt that I would have been able to fit the pieces together as easily.  He also demonstrated the special rhythms that drummers play in the different instances when the drum is used. (Sorry, I can’t find my notes and I’ve forgotten the names of the master drum maker and his son.)

Three gumbay drums
Drums on display
Closeup of a gumbay drum


This is my submission to Travel Photo Thursday, which is organized by Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Be sure to head over and check out more photos from locations around the world.




Travel Memories – Barcelona

Most travelers have a trip that’s so full of travel memories, they recall it over and over, like fishermen obsessing about the one that got away. I’m one of them.

My three-month stay in Barcelona was the flowering of an idea that had become planted in my mind back when I was a student in high school in rural Jamaica. Out of the blue one day, our Spanish teacher spent an entire period regaling us with her stories of her time as a student in Spain. She had us captivated, hanging on to every word of every story she told us. For days after, I kept dreaming of the Spain that I had created from her stories. In reality, however, Spain was as far away and as foreign as the moon but I saw myself there.

At Ciutadella Park
Ciutadella Park, 1977

I don’t remember how or when I found out about the semester abroad program that my university was offering but in January 1977, I was among the group of 10 that left cold and snowy Ottawa behind to study Spanish in Barcelona. During our time there, we created many happy travel memories in Sitges, Madrid, Mallorca, the Costa Brava, Montserrat, Ullastret, Vich, Villanova, Ripoll, Tarragona, Tibidabo, Perpignon, Ampurias and Andorra. Here a few that I’d like to share with you.

Travel Memories – First Impressions

Coming out of nearly 40 years of the repressive dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, I’d imagined that Spain would have been drab and militaristic. Instead, Barcelona was vibrant and colorful — everything pulsed with life. I was enthralled by the architecture, music, art, culture and food, and Barcelona made me feel alive and in love with life.

Although we arrived in winter, there was little snow and the temperatures were much warmer than in Ottawa. Most days, I wore sweaters and shirts, occasionally a light jacket. So I was surprised to see many of the women, all fashionably dressed and wrapped up in their furs. You see, we’d also heard that salaries in Spain were lower than in Canada so it baffled us to see women so well dressed. Young Barcelonians, however, rocked jeans that were so tight, I wondered how they took a breath.

Travel Memories – The Tuna

One night, a group of us went to a tuna at the University of Barcelona. A tuna is a centuries old tradition where student musicians dress in traditional garb and serenade their audience with singing and guitar playing. After the performance that night, a few of us followed the tunas to a restaurant where their singing was backed up by tub after tub of sangria. As soon as a tub was empty, another would appear as if by magic. No doubt fueled by the wine, we joined in and sang as lustily as a church choir. I’m not sure how much sangria we had but by the time we left, we were all stepping a little lightly. Somehow we made it home safely but I could hardly move the next day.

Travel Memories – There’s Always Someone Who Understands

On a packed metro, the notion of personal space goes out the door as soon as you enter the car. We all knew about the metro and had heard stories of women being groped. Because of that, my roommate and I always walked to school but on this particular day, I don’t remember why, we took the metro. As the door pulled shut, and the other riders pressed in on me, I commented in our dialect to my roommate, who was also Jamaican, that I was being squashed. I added, jokingly, what I thought could happen if we didn’t get off soon. Of course we thought we were clever. We were in our own little world sharing a joke only we got. We hadn’t stopped laughing when a male voice responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” I was so embarrassed, I wanted to disappear. I don’t remember even looking back to see who it was. Luckily, ours was the next stop and as we exited, we burst into laughter. Every so often my roommate or I would do our best impressions of our potential savior and we’d laugh all over again.

Travel Memories – A Message I’ve Never Forgotten

When I joined the line at the airline office to change my return ticket (no penalty!) and buy a ticket to London, I noticed an agent whose face was as pockmarked as the surface of the moon. He must have felt me staring at him because he turned and looked directly at me. His face was expressionless, his eyes blank. I didn’t want him to assist me but as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I knew he would. As I explained what I wanted to do, he replied, You can get anything you want in the world. I’m sure he said it in response to my question, but for me, it was a message. That message, that anything I want can be mine, has never left me.

My stay in Barcelona provided many indelible travel memories. It also transformed me in ways I only understood and appreciated later.

Enjoyed this post? Be sure to check out Boomeresque for more travels down memory lane.

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Croydon Plantation Jamaica

Croydon Plantation in the Catadupa Mountains of St. James, owes its reputation to pineapples and coffee, as well as its connection to national hero, Samuel Sharpe. Sharpe was born a slave in 1801 at Croydon and became a Baptist preacher. In December 1831, Sharpe organized a peaceful protest at plantations in the western end of the island that turned into the largest rebellion on the island. It took the military two weeks to end the rebellion, which by then had caused hundreds of deaths. They captured the leaders, including Sharpe, who was hanged in 1832.

 Sign at Croydon Plantation

A few months ago, a friend and I boarded the tour bus that would take us on the hour-long drive from Freeport, Montego Bay to Catadupa. Our guide kept us entertained with stories and jokes that sometimes it was easy to ignore the bumps on the windy mountain road. Note: if you get car sick easily and want to do this tour, think about riding in the back of the bus and away from the windows.

Pine and other trees at Croydon Plantation
Pine trees

At Croydon Plantation, which stretches 132 acres, we learned about the different varieties of pineapples – Ripley, Guyana, Cowboy, Sugar – that are grown there. The best part? We got to taste them.

Rows of pineapples at Croydon Plantation
Fields of pineapple

We did a lot of tasting and smelling on the walk from the coffee station, where our guide demonstrated how the beans are harvested, to the main area where we had lunch. Our tour guide pointed out jackfruits, grapefruits, star fruits, limes, sugarcane, sweetsop, and other fruits, herbs and spices.

Pineapple with new shoots, Croydon Plantation
Pineapple with new shoots
Tasting pineapples at Croydon Plantation
Tasting the pineapples

The tour ended with a delicious lunch of jerk chicken, rice and peas and salad. It was followed by a short presentation by one of the owners.

Sam Sharpe monument to Sam Sharpe
Monument to Sam Sharpe

In recognition of Sam Sharpe’s connection to Croydon Plantation, the owners have placed statues of the national hero on the grounds. Similar sculptures can also be seen in Sam Sharpe Square in Montego Bay.


Croydon Plantation Particulars

Tours are conducted on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Cost: $70, includes the tour, lunch and roundtrip transportation. 876-979-8267.


For more photos from locations around the world, head over to Travel Photo Mondays, which is organized by Noel at Travel Photo Discovery.