It always takes me some time to write about travels and experiences. It feels like my heart is never really ready to let go of the words. As if once they are on paper, they don’t belong to me anymore.
When it comes to Jamaica, however, there is a difference. The place never really leaves me, and it seems like I never really leave the island. It’s always as if my body gets back home, but my soul never fully lands back into my physical self. There is something inexplicably deep about my connection to the island, something surely from a past life. When the deep, soul-reaching sounds of conscious reggae music hit me, I feel transported somewhere where my body just can’t reach.
There is also something undeniably mystical about the mountains in Jamaica. And that’s exactly where my trip started, nestled in the Blue Mountains, at the famed Strawberry Hill Hotel. The drive to the hotel is a trip in itself. The views of Kingston fading away on the horizon are balanced by the deep tropical forest that engulfs you as you climb up. The hotel, owned by Chris Blackwell, record producer and founder of Island Records, is a stunning 26-acre property composed of cottages, well staggered for privacy, and perched around a great house and a gracious infinity pool, where guests can linger and replenish. Not a bad spot to chill after a PHX-MIA-KIN red eye.
After this much needed first night of rest, I am heading towards the north coast of the island. I had rented an apartment in Old Fort Bay, about 7 minutes by car from the town of Ocho Rios. This is where my body truly landed. This is where I unpacked, where I went food shopping, where I was coming home after a nice, fulfilling day of work.
Despite its relatively small size as an island country, Jamaica shines bright on the global cultural scene. The level of energy, once you reach, is unbelievable. The island also has heaps to be proud of, especially when you think about music, literature, film, cuisine, and sports. My focus this time, however, was on food and music.
And up there, in the hills of Bamboo, about 40 minutes from Ocho Rios, is what called me back to Jamaica: Stush in the Bush. I will never say enough about Stush. It’s this 15-acre piece of heaven where farm-to-table takes on a whole new dimension. This time, however, I wasn’t going to eat. This time, I was going to experience the magic that happens behind the scenes. I took a chance, called on my friend Lisa (co-owner of Stush), asked if she’d be willing to let me come and work with them for a week. She graciously accepted, and my adventure began.
Now, let me put Stush in the Bush in perspective. The whole thing is really about them: Lisa and Chris. It’s their love for the land, their love of food, and their passion for sharing it all with others. It is their love story, imprinted in every single thing your eyes land on. The fully organic farm, headed by Chris, supplies the creative juices to keep Lisa going in the kitchen. It’s a completely symbiotic relationship with nature, in accord with the revered relationship between food and life.
As I’m pulling up the first day, the feelings come rushing back, a flood of emotions reminding me exactly why I loved this place so much the first time. Lisa greets me on the steps with a warm hug. You wouldn’t expect anything less from this gorgeous, loving, and spirited woman. Everything she touches turns to beauty. She has that undeniable knack for style and panache that I love so much when it comes to food.
But now that I’m at the farm, I understand why I’ve thought about this place for the last three years. Inside the open-air kitchen, the mood is light. Happening today is the celebrated Stush Cooking Club, an intimate gathering of friends around a meal prepared and eaten as a group. I’m the nervous one, because I’m new in the kitchen, and I need to find my bearings. But Tyler, Lisa’s daughter and Stush’ sous-chef, quickly makes me feel comfortable. She has a magnetic personality and a strong intuition in the kitchen. I’m in for a great time!
Throughout the week, I get to cultivate inspiration. As I work my way through making crêpes for the fabulous Crêpes Cake with Mulberry Cashew Ricotta, preparing and chopping some of the best vegetables the land can provide for dishes like pumpkin-stuffed dumplings, D’Avignon radish salad, activated charcoal pasta with romesco sauce. The list goes on, really, and the revelation becomes clearer to me.
After a few days in the Stush kitchen, it’s time to hit the road and head to Kingston for the Jamaica Observer Food Awards. It is the 20th installment, so it’s a big deal! Not only is Stush nominated in three categories, this becomes a great chance for me to experience offsite catering. The team is nominated in the following categories: best vegetarian, best food experience, and best food experience with Moveable Feast, a concept in collaboration with Christina Simonitsch, of Simo’s Bread & Catering. Well, guess what! They won all THREE! What a joy to be there and witness it all! I can testify to the amount of work that goes in, day in, day out, and they deserve all the praise they get, truly!
After the Awards, I spend the night in Kingston, in preparation for my relaxing long weekend at Jamnesia, in Bull Bay. I am sad to say goodbye to my Stush family, but it is now time for the music part of my trip.
At this point again, it is hard for me to find words to describe my experience. And I have a feeling that no matter how I try to explain it, there are no other ways that can describe my own unique experience other than being there to live it. Nobody really knows what your soul is after, so experiences are felt very differently from one person to the next. All this to say that my words are only my words as I write them, and that the experience that stays with my soul will always be much stronger.
I arrived at Jamnesia on Friday morning, just before lunch. First person I stumble upon on arrival is Billy Mystic himself. Billy “Mystic” Wilmot is the lead vocalist for the acclaimed reggae band the Mystic Revealers. I’m here for the music, and clearly, it’s starting out on a high note.
Jamnesia is as much a surf camp as it is a music venue. It’s a chill spot and a meeting spot. From the moment I put my bag down in my room, my internal vibe changes. Something at Jamnesia turns your physical needs and worries into dust, and it happens in very little time. Hair down, no mirrors, no makeup, no clock. I had to tune into the beat of Jamnesia’s drum, literally, and surrender to the sweet sounds of music.
That first day, after a quick nap and some fresh fruits, I feel completely free and at ease. Everybody is so warm and welcoming, it feels as if I’ve always been there. One of my big moments comes when I am served my first meal. It is true that I came to Jamaica for food and music, but I never thought I would find the latter to be a highlight of my time at Jamnesia. That night, my plate was full of plant-based goodness and the bean stew is the best I’ve had in my life.
The next morning, I inquire about the chef and am informed that one of Billy’s son, Ishack, went to culinary school in Canada. Every single meal Ishack cooked was perfectly balanced, the composition stellar, and the taste heavenly. In the morning, Miss Maggie makes my breakfast, and I find myself looking forward to getting up to fully enjoy my meal. Miss Maggie is Billy’s wife, and she is a joy to get to know as well. She has a deep love for the land, and one morning, as I am devouring my breakfast, she talks about the past, when she was working the land and, afterwards, when she devoted herself to children with disabilities. There is no doubt about it. Jamnesia is keeping me nourished, physiologically and spiritually.
The next day is a Saturday, and Saturdays are meant for Jamnesia Sessions! I had been waiting for this night for a long time, and I felt beyond blessed to be part of it. The people I met, the words I heard, the energy was palpable. That weekend at Jamnesia was one of the best experiences of my life. It brought me back to the essentials: sun, sea, music, plant food, and human warmth. I realized, during my time in Jamaica, that we, humans, don’t need much to live our best lives. It seems that we complicate everything with our worldly desires and temporal boundaries.
Sadly, after my weekend at Jamnesia, it was time to head back home. Leaving Jamaica is always difficult for me. It seems like the island remains in my heart, but this time, there was something different. I came looking for something spiritual, and I found it. My soul was searching, and the answers came. Now, it is time to bring the food, the music, and the vibes to Arizona. What do you say?
There is something special about traveling differently, traveling as if you live somewhere. It’s renting a car, grocery shopping, volunteering, helping out, being part of the local community. The rewards are grand. You leave with an imprint on your heart. You meet people you feel you’ve known all along and they become a part of your soul. And then, you realize that we are all one.
I want to give thanks to every single person I got to vibe with during my time in Jamaica. I trust that I met every single one of you for a reason, and I am forever grateful for all the blessings you all brought into my life. You all know who you are.
ONE LOVE AND UNITY, ALWAYS.