Anthony Bourdain… does the name ring a bell? The man who eats his way around the world was recently in Jamaica as part of his show, Parts Unknown, airing on CNN. With much anticipation, the episode was released to the public over the weekend and of course, many in Jamaica and abroad were as excited as they were opinionated about his second visit… back to “yaad”. After a first trip to Kingston, the chef decided to return and explore the beautiful East Coast and namely, the picturesque town of Port Antonio.
By now, you may have already seen the episode, the comments and feedback floating around on the internet. Some good. Some bad. My intention is not to bash the show or Bourdain’s experience, but here’s my take on it.
First and foremost, this is a TV show produced for and aired on mainstream TV: CNN specifically. So no matter what, there will always be some sort of bias or filter on the content development.
Secondly, clearly there was too much air time dedicated on the lavish Trident castle and other forms of extravaganza. Jamaica is not just about poverty, but it isn’t all about wealth either… especially the exorbitant kind. It was interesting to take a peak into the world of the rich (and it is sometimes a necessary discussion), but too much of it felt like watching a parody about Dubai.
And yes, I recognize that Bourdain did also meet the average, regular Portland folk- but he could had shown more. A lot more. As a matter of fact, the episode got so depressing by the minute as the underlying theme kept creeping up that the area was inevitably doomed to sell out and to put it bluntly, as one of the local characters expressed,“WILL BELONG TO TOURISTS”. Note: tourists, not travelers. There’s a clear distinction between the two and there’s a reason the tourist character with the cowboy hat kept making an appearance like a reoccuring nightmare.
Maybe TV enjoys drama. People want a gripping story. What’s the saying again? “Bad news is good news” (remember… this is CNN after all). And Bourdain did not have to show just wealth or solely poverty. Things don’t have to be black or white. But he could had showed Port Antonio for what it’s really known for: its splendor. This place is unlike other places in Jamaica: it is of stunning natural beauty. Portland is indeed the parish with the “good genes”. Did that come through the episode? Not enough in my opinion. The only way I can describe Port Antonio is by being inspired by what I know best: my very own visit to that part of the island.
For starters, how to get there? There is the mini bus ride from Kingston to Port Antonio. Very important. Public transport is always essential to any travel experience. The more crowded the bus and the louder the music, the better.
The great news is that the bus ride is well worth it- especially when you know that Mother Earth has this in store for you:
Beach- private or public. All must be experienced. There is a petition to keep Winnifred free to the public, sign it!
And then there is the iconic Blue Lagoon of course.
If your stomach starts to growl between each site, make a stop at one of the road side vendors selling you locally sourced fruit. Get your vitamin mix and bingo- support the local economy.
Or maybe you’d rather have a sip on some fresh coconut water. Stay hydrated while supporting the small local businesses.
On the subject of food, Port Antonio has a handful of eateries where food is prepared by great chefs! And by great chefs, I specifically mean great people. Remember- Jamaica is all about the people. Take Oliver for instance, the friendly rasta who runs the Ital shack “Survival Beach” and cooks a storm in his kitchen, literally right on the beach.
You’ll never really know what’s on the menu until your food is served on your plate- and this guessing game makes the culinary experience a whole lot more charming.
In most spots, you might also need patience. Remember: we’re on island time now and things can move slowly… but it also serves as a good reminder that it’s not just always about the food. It’s not always about consumption. It’s also about making great conversation with that random stranger that will share a story or two with you as you wait for your food to be served. A reminder once again of what makes Jamaica such a wonderful place: the people.
Just like Cherry for instance, who runs Woody’s Burgers. The most quaint and charming burger joint (with a Jamaican flair) in Port Antonio. Her smile and personality are contagious as are her stories on how she makes jerk sauce from scratch!
And more great people around every corner…
For the sake of being cliché, I suppose a jerk chicken lunch is in order at Boston Bay, one of the few other public beaches where you might catch some waves and a surfer or two.
Or you might just grab a patty on the way and perhaps some fresh soursop juice.
And heck, sometimes a ripe mango falling off the tree might just be the best fix. Don’t cut it (ignore the knife in the picture). Enjoy it, make a mess. Eat it the way it’s done in Jamaica.
The truth is that Jamaican food is simple. It’s hearty. It’s soul food. Bourdain opened the episode making references to slavery. To me, Jamaican food reflects the people: full of soul, diverse, warm and welcoming. Traditional too in a certain sense. And last but not least, close and appreciative to nature.
Now this is not to say that all is fine and dandy in Port Antonio. It is not- just like many other places in Jamaica. In my five trips to the island, I have seen the ugly and the beautiful: I am as pragmatic as I can be. I will not let the post card beaches and sunsets fool me, nor the smiles that sometimes hide struggle and sorrow. But I can’t help it, I have always been a glass-half-full type of girl. The rules of travelling have changed and as travelers, we have a responsibility which is to leave a clean footprint whenever we visit a new place. Humans may tend to underestimate the ability they have to make a positive impact on the environment around them. As travelers, we have immediate control over three things 1- how we choose to spend each dollar 2- how we choose to interact with locals and 3- how we choose to share our experience with the rest of the world. Bourdain’s conversation with Blackwell made it clear that times are changing –for the better…or the worse- for this part of Jamaica that is so heavily dependent on tourism, hence the importance to travel with a conscious.
To conclude…. Bourdain is sometimes criticized of displaying a pessimistic outlook on some of his destinations- and this time around was no exception. I could not see any of the beauty Port Antonio has to offer- it seemed to be hiding behind thick fog. His experience felt like night & day compared to mine- and I don’t even have billionaire friends to hang out with inside a fancy castle! The travelling chef reminds us “Who owns paradise after all? Who gets to own paradise? Use paradise? Or even visit it? That’s a question that’s probably worth paying attention to.” The answer is that no one has to own paradise. We can all experience it. Support local businesses. Sign the petition to Free Winnifred. Stay at local guest houses. Keep the beaches clean. Stop and chat with the locals. Share a meal. Listen to their stories and make some friendships. Paradise is a subjective term- not all that glitters is gold. Money is important, but not at the cost of letting Port Antonio become a massive parking spot for all-inclusive resorts. Sustainable tourism plays its role in helping to boost local economies. Everyone can have a taste of paradise when you travel local and support locals.
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