It’s traditional for Baptists from the host country to throw a party for visiting participants in the Baptist World Alliance annual gathering, and Jamaicans know how to party-mon.
Loaded onto minibuses — with fold-down seats in the aisles to fill each one to capacity — we left Ocho Rios for the Roaring River Great House in St. Ann. We did not see a roaring river, though we did cross a bubbling brook as the minibus left the main road for a safari-like excursion of what seemed like ten miles (probably less than two) of bumping along a rutted and rocky track that wound over the hills of a former sugar plantation, until we arrived at an imposing hilltop house planted firmly between an inland forest and a beautiful view of the Caribbean Sea below.
A rollicking quintet of island musicians welcomed us as we disembarked and received tiny gift baskets containing sugared tamarind and hard squares of burnt-sugar candy. A fair of pointed tents was laid out on two broad terraces, along with a seating area before a raised stage decorated with the green and gold colors of the Jamaican flag.
Nattily dressed waiters offered cold drinks of lemonade that was good, but didn’t taste of lemons, sorrell, fruit punch, and ginger beer — which packed a punch despite the total lack of alcohol. Entertainment included an exuberant 18-person steel drum orchestra, indigenous dancing, and a choir and dance ensemble from the high school that sprinter Usain Bolt once attended.
The evening was marked by considerable pomp and circumstance, as a number of dignitaries were present, including His Excellency The Most Honorable Sir Patrick Allen, Governor-General of Jamaica, who must always be addressed as “His Excellency The Most Honorable Sir Patrick Allen, The Governor-General.” A string of lesser officials were also present, including one called honorable and another “your worship” — and he was not the head of the Anglican Church in Jamaica, who was also there.
Each speaker (and there were several), had to begin his or her remarks with a recital of all the dignitaries and their titles before getting around to words of welcome, appreciation, or mutual admiration.
You may have gathered that I’m not a great fan of pomp and officialese. I would not make a good diplomat.
Following the exchange of greetings, the Jamaican national anthem, and assorted entertainments, we were treated the many tastes of Jamaica. Soups included fish tea (better than it sounds), peppapot (made from callaloo, a type of spinach), and Mannish water (made from goat intestines).
No, I didn’t try the goat intestines.
Main dishes ranged from ackee and saltfish (the national dish, made from the ackee fruit and salted cod), jerk chicken and pork, curried chicken, fried breadfruit, fried dumplings, festivals (a type of hush puppy), escovitch fish (marinated fried snapper), among other offerings.
The only downside of overtasting the food fair’s fare is that it was followed by another long and bumpy bus ride: the cushiony suspensions of the minibuses were not made for wallowed out roads, and it felt as if we were sailing in stormy seas.
For a while I felt in danger of tasting Jamaica twice, but made it safely back to the hotel, feeling fully welcomed and still happy to be in this lovely land that the Jamaicans insist should be called “paradise.”