Ifeona Fulani: Jamaica homecoming

Ifeona Fulani left Jamaica when she was four, and didn’t go back for thirty years. But the island is still home, and every return visit is a gift

A busy Sunday at Hellshire, Kingston’s most popular beach. Photograph by Otis GillingCoronation Market in downtown Kingston. Photograph by Otis GillingPhotograph by Otis GillingThe view from Strawberry Hill, looking over the Blue Mountains to Newcastle. Photograph by Otis Gilling

There was that first homecoming, years ago now, when I returned to Jamaica after more than thirty years of absence. I was four when I left to join my parents in London, and when I went back at thirty-four I had no memories of the places where I had lived as a small child — my father’s small farm in St Elizabeth, and the street in downtown Kingston where I stayed with my aunt after my parents emigrated.

That first return was a momentous and emotional event. I remember stepping off the airplane into the humid heat of a Kingston afternoon, feeling on the brink of discoveries that would reveal things to me: things about my parents’ past and things about this island they could never bear to talk about. Things that would change the way I thought about myself.

I have made many returns to Jamaica since that first time; I even left London to live there for six and a half years, motivated by a desire to really know my birthplace. In those years, I found joy and well-being and a depth of connection with people that has been hard to find elsewhere.

Now I live in New York City, and I return to Jamaica once a year to recharge, to reconnect with people I care about, and to eat as much Jamaican food as possible. I always land with a feeling of expectation, always, no matter how bad the news about violence in the city, about political wrongdoing, about the multiple stresses that Jamaicans live with. The ability of Jamaicans to carve out spaces in which to release their cares, no matter how dread the circumstances of the moment and no matter for how brief a time, inspires me to do the same.

I like to visit over the Christmas holidays. Temperatures are moderate — mid 20s Celsius to early 30s — humidity is low, and the delicious soft wind known as Christmas Breeze helps to keep things cool. Over the period from Christmas Eve to New Years’ Day, friends and relatives are available to be visited or to go out, but preferably to be visited. It’s one of the pleasures of the season to go from home to home, sampling each household’s sorrel — the drink made from brilliant red flowers that bloom at Christmastime — and rich, black fruit cake.

After every landing at the airport in Kingston I make a quick stop at the jelly coconut stall just past the first roundabout on the airport road. That first ritual drink of coconut water, taken “warm” through a straw, marks the start of my return to this particular home.

I make my base in Kingston, where I lived for two years, and where most of my friends are. From there I’ll travel out to visit my people in the country, in Manchester and St Mary. Kingston has changed dramatically in some ways since I left in the late 1990s. New but half-empty apartment buildings crowd into spaces once luxuriously occupied by single-family homes in the residential streets off Hope Road. More cars jam the roads; traffic in the city has been re-routed, to improve flow, I’ve been told — an improvement that is hard to discern. The places that make Kingston distinctive and special for me are also changing, but they still retain their unique character.

Is it strange that one of my favourite places is a market? Situated downtown, close to the notorious Tivoli Gardens, Coronation Market is exciting, stimulating, an adventure. I go there to see and savour the profusion of fruit, vegetables, spices, and flowers, evidence of the island’s natural abundance. It is the largest market in the Caribbean, where farmers from across the island bring their produce to sell, where shopkeepers and stallholders from across the surrounding parishes come to buy wholesale. I go there with my friend D, setting out early so we arrive before the best produce sells out and before the market gets crowded. Clothing, shoes, accessories, toiletries — everything is available at Coronation Market, but our interest is in the abundant seasonal produce. We pick our way around the stalls, remaining alert to speeding pushcarts and pushy vendors. D and her husband are vegan, and she shops from vendors she has known for years, with whom she exchanges greetings and banter, whether she purchases from them or not. She buys staples in large quantities: ortaniques by the dozen, hands of green bananas that will ripen quickly and be eaten just as fast, papayas, plantains, limes, mangoes, whichever fruit are in season. When our baskets are full we go back to her house to wash and store the produce and then sit down to a homecoming breakfast of ortanique juice, fruit salad, calalloo, ackee, plantains, avocado pear, and Blue Mountain coffee with coconut milk and Kalhua.

My first Saturday morning back in Kingston may find me at the market, but my first Sunday morning brings a yearning to see the sea, and the quest for a ride out to Hellshire. The favourite beach of Kingstonians, Hellshire is where the best fried fish and festival in Jamaica are prepared. There’s nothing glamourous about Hellshire these days. The beach, once deep and golden and fringed with sea almond trees, is a fast-shrinking strip of sand, and sometimes seaweed accumulates in shadowy drifts, evidence of pollutants in the sea. Yet the ever-increasing number of shacks lining the seafront, in which fresh-caught parrot, snapper, and goat fish are prepared all day long, attests to the deliciousness of Hellshire’s famous fried fish and to the numbers of Kingstonians who go there to eat at weekends.

Everyone has their favourite fish spot; mine is the one that makes festival that are crisp outside and light as air inside. I make my way there as soon as we arrive. I haven’t lived on the island for years, but the owner remembers me. When I lived in Jamaica, her mother ran the spot and she and her young siblings fried the fish. Her mother has died, and now she runs things while her teenage children do the cooking.

I pick a medium-sized red parrot fish and one goat fish from the cooler, and place my order for festival. The food will be brought to us when it’s ready; meanwhile we settle ourselves on one of the makeshift wooden loungers lined up on the sand, facing the sea. On Sundays the beach and the shallows are crowded with parents playing in the water with their children, with young people fooling around on the sand, and with vendors plying their wares along the beach. I buy jelly coconuts for us to drink before settling to watch the beach scene and wait for my delectable, perfectly fried fish.

Of all my favourite places in and around Kingston, Hellshire has changed the most and the fastest over the last fifteen years. The rising sea level and erosion of sand has brought the water just a few feet short of the fish shacks. Each time I leave I wonder where the water will be next time I return, and whether there will still be a beach. I know I must not wait too long before returning.

 

Some more of the author’s favourites: the best ice cream in Kingston, where to find the best view, and how to escape when you need a break from the city

Devon House is one of few places in Kingston included in every tourist guide to Jamaica, and rightly so. Built by a Jamaican millionaire in 1881, the elegant mansion is well worth visiting, but its most popular feature is found among the more recently developed cluster of shops in its grounds. The appropriately named I-scream was recently ranked fourth in National Geographic’s list of the world’s best ice cream parlours. To buy a cone filled with Devon Stout or Grape Nut ice cream and sit with it under a spreading tree in Devon House’s courtyard is a pleasure out of all proportion to the cost.

Only twenty minutes drive away from the centre of Kingston, the Strawberry Hill hotel rests on a minor peak of the Blue Mountains, in the cool atmosphere three thousand feet above sea level. It’s possible to enjoy the calm beauty of Strawberry Hill’s mountain location without staying at one of its beautifully designed cottages: order afternoon tea or a drink and snacks, and sit on the terrace by the pool to enjoy the panoramic views, over the city to the sea on one side and lush green mountains on the other. If you feel indulgent, check into the hotel’s spa for some first-class pampering, and then chill out by the pool before heading back to town.

The road from Strawberry Hill to Kingston winds downhill through pleasant wooded scenery, but for those who love the road and enjoy challenging driving, Jamaica has many more spectacular roads. I like to drive north out of Kingston, heading for the St Mary coast via Junction. This winding thoroughfare traverses breathtaking terrain: it runs beside the sparkling waters of the Wag River and through gorgeous vegetation at Castleton Botanic Gardens before climbing through limestone gorges and bamboo-covered hills. If paradise were a place, the road to get there would look like Junction.