This article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Prime Time magazine.
A Different Kind of Journey
by Kathy Salzberg
Swinging like Tarzan from a vine beneath a tropical waterfall, horseback riding through churning surf, snapping a crocodile's smile on a river cruise, trekking around a coffee plantation, writing about the spiritual side of aging - not the usual vacation fare for midlife women taking a respite from a New England winter -unless you've signed up for a Jamaican Journey with Mary Ann Jones. If you're a curious explorer embarking on your own path of self-discovery, it's a whole new way to travel.
A psychotherapist and writer in her mid-sixties who divides her time between Cape Cod and Jamaica, Jones has turned wanderlust into her life's work. "My mother always said I had tinker's blood," she laughs when asked how she got started hosting winter sojourns to this vibrant tropical island sixteen years ago. It had to do with falling in love. Her Irish roots show in her cap of glossy black hair now threaded with silver and eyes that sparkle when she talks about her travels.
In the 80's when teaching at Cape Cod Community College, she visited Jamaica on a semester break. "I fell in love with the place - just like that!" Enrolled in a doctoral program at Boston University, she decided to do her field work on the island. "I was studying the psychology of religion and I wanted to find out how people handle mental illness here, how they deal with anxiety, panic attacks, loss and grieving." This led her to Jamaica's indigenous women healers.
"I was curious about how healing takes place within a religious context unique to this island," she explains. She began her dissertation on this topic, obtaining a grant to research one such healer, Mother Sychies of Savannah-La-Mar, the subject of her book in progress. "I never did finish that dissertation but by then I was hooked on being here for long periods of time and had to find a way to support myself," she explains.
Her roots on Cape Cod run even deeper. The divorced mother of three sons first came to West Harwich as a teenager and has lived and worked in Eastham, Chatham and on Nantucket as well.
On a trip with Jones, each week has a theme. This year's featured Birding on the South Coast, a stopping-off place for a wide variety of species; the Wise Women retreat, a learning adventure that includes massage, yoga, art and water therapy in the warm sea while journeying inward in a daily Women's Circle; Dreaming the Journey Into Age, writing, painting, sharing goals and dreams for the second stage of adulthood in the company of Jane Pretat, a Jungian Analyst who has written extensively on the aging process. Another frequent offering has been a writing workshop with novelist Anne D. LeClaire of Chatham.
Each sojourn involves side trips to Jones' off-the-beaten-path idylls -waterfalls, a hummingbird sanctuary, street markets, craft cooperatives, unspoiled beaches plus musical performances by calypso, reggae or a steel drum bands. The serendipitous providence of her own life is a hallmark of these trips where the itinerary usually serves as a jumping-off place.
Not surprisingly, I learned that the itinerary for this trip had changed before I left Logan Airport. Originally booked as a camping experience in a tropical rainforest near Port Antonio, a mammoth highway construction project in the area made driving even more dicey than usual. Instead, we convened at Natania's, a guest house in the South Coast village of Culloden owned and operated by ageless Jamaican beauty Veronica Probst. Far from the Spring Break bustle of Negril and pulsating night life of Montego Bay, Natania's is unpretentious but comfortable, a soothing place to fall asleep or awaken to the sound of pounding surf.
With wood-paneled rooms connected by a verandah overlooking the turquoise sea, it made the perfect spot to pull up a chair or laze in a hammock for reading, dreaming or sunset watching. On its seaside patio, we enjoyed Jamaican breakfasts of native fruits, eggs and calalloo, ackee and cod or that Jamaican staple, porridge. Most nights, dinners were next door at the Culloden Café, written up in the Lonely Planet Guide as one of the island's best restaurants, where the welcoming smile of transplanted American Ann Lyons sweetened the ending of each day.
One excursion took us to YS Falls in St. Elizabeth, a series of waterfalls that cascade 120 feet over seven tiers into cool swimming holes and natural whirlpools. If that's not thrilling enough, there's always that vine swing, dropping you into a pool at one of the upper falls. Tubing down the river below the falls is another delightful possibility. Our transportation to and from the falls, set within a working thoroughbred horse farm, was provided by a tractor-drawn jitney.
"This is the Garden of Eden," smiles Louise Bonar, a slim and active teacher, business consultant, tap dancer, gardener and poet in her 70's who has headed up two management development programs for women in the Boston area and has been teaching a course in Assertive Communication for 23 years. She runs the annual Wise Women Retreat with Jones but this week's trip is strictly for fun.
Another morning found us at the fishing village of Treasure Beach where we checked out the wares of local craftspeople and planted ourselves at the water's edge to enjoy breaking waves as our leader snorkeled offshore. A visit to the boutique at Jake's, a Bohemian-flavored resort for island aficionados, and to the studio of husband and wife artists-in-residence Ginny O'Neil and Tom Menihan of Boston, plus a delicious lunch of Jamaican pizza at Jack Sprat's, rounded out our day before heading back to the pool at Natania's in time for sunset.
Another adventure took us up winding mountain roads to a coffee plantation for a private tour from owner Gena Green. We made a few wrong turns along the way but friendly Jamaicans appeared as if on cue to shepherd us to our destination. At one crossroads, a cabbie stopped us to offer help! Warm smiles abounded, turning the giving of directions into a social occasion.
Kew Park and adjoining Copse Mountain Farm sprawl over a 2000-acre holding deeded to the ancestors of Green's husband, Peter Williams, by Oliver Cromwell in the 1600's. In addition to organically raising a coffee crop rivaling the famed Blue Mountain brew, the couple oversees a working cattle ranch, hardwood forest and "the cleanest piggery you'll ever see," quipped Green. High on a hilltop with a distant view of Montego Bay sits the Great House, still occupied by a Williams family member. The nearby stone cottage where the couple lives with their two children was built as a fort during Jamaica's short-lived Spanish occupation. On the cool verandah we were served tall glasses of freshly-squeezed juice from Jamaica's sweet Ortinque oranges.
One lazy afternoon, I lie on a table in Natania's seaside pavilion, reveling in a massage from Nicki Hines of Mt. Airy, masseuse, cosmetologist and barber. Waves crashed below, tumbling beach stones in their retreat. Her skilled hands heal my shoulders, still sore from hauling overstuffed luggage and a year's worth of stress, my own personal baggage.
Lifelong friendships are often forged on these trips. This one reconnected me to Sue Connell, an artist, furniture restoration expert, feral cat rescuer and world traveler who lives in a nineteenth-century country store in the Berkshires with five beloved felines. She has been on several Jones' trips, including a Mexican foray to Oaxaca for the Days of the Dead, a week-long celebration featuring processions, bountiful art and the building of altars bearing flowers, food and other offerings for the spirits, believed by the natives to make contact during this time. Jones also runs trips to San Miguel de Allende and Copper Canyon.
Wherever she travels, Connell seeks out other artists. "It expands my knowledge and vision. I'm able to get a new sense of color, from a folk art perspective." Each sunset inspires a new color palette but she says it's the people that bring her back, the friendships as well as the joy of speaking artist-to-artist with the locals, overcoming any language barrier.
Billed as "Sacred Places, Sacred Spaces," Jones' late August trip to Ireland will delve into stone circles, search out Queen Maeve's grave in Sligo, study the pre-Christian religions and visit the burial mound at Newgrange, a site that predates the pyramids. Come May, she will head to the cultural smorgasbord of Santa Fe while Tucson, Tombstone, and Sedona are on the agenda for an Arizona trip. June may find her in Colorado where she will share favorite spots Mesa Verde, Durango and Pagosa Springs. Where to next for this insatiable explorer? The possibilities roll right off her tongue: "Vietnam, France, Alaska, South Africa!"
"Driving in Jamaica is like a video game," she observes as we head for Montego Bay and our flights home. Like a true Jamaican, she uses her horn to greet, warn, scold and announce herself as we hurtle over hilly roads with hairpin turns. "Don't Be in Hurry to Enter Eternity," warns a highway sign near the Mo Bay roundabout - prosaic, but largely ignored as the normally laid-back natives go careening by.
For the mature traveler who is looking for tourism beyond shopping and sightseeing, the safety of a group, company of interesting companions and a serendipitous experience with a knowledgeable guide, a trip with Jones is like a memorable meal. This modern-day gypsy woman mixes equal portions of fun and adventure, seasoned with enough learning and self-transformation to whet the appetite for more.
For further information, call Mary Ann Jones at (508) 432-3114 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Louise Bonar at (617) 254-1729 or LNyiad@aol.com . Her website is at www.jamaicajourneys.com