All photos by Chase Hall
This article is part of MERRY JANE's Jamaica Week. For more on this special series of articles and videos, visit our Editor's Letter here.
On a cold night in New York, I could hear the snow smacking the window. It was the middle of January and I was laying in bed, searching for a movie to watch. Me and my girlfriend came across How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and halfway through watching we paused it and impulsively booked flights to the magical island nation where the film is set. The next week we packed our bags and set out to the airport; the plan was that simple.
Upon arriving in Jamaica, we didn't really know what to expect. It didn’t matter, though; everything there was more than I could have imagined. We stayed at the Rockhouse, which is this immaculate hotel on the western side of Negril. Cliffs, restaurants, lil hut rooms etc. After settling in, I scurried out to the streets with my cameras and got to it. I walked countless miles through the streets and on the beach, and luckily I came across a Rastafarian guy with dreads and a beard. He wanted to show me his little beach shack he’d filled with these huge pale pink conch shells and other sea life memorabilia he collected over the years.
I went with him to his shack, and he began to show me not shells or clams, but rather pounds of weed, natural farmed almonds, and other nuts from the trees above his shack. He also had a cooler filled with Red Stripe, some spirits, and a fruit called ackee, which is poisonous until cooked. It’s kind of like a West African lychee, if you will. After snacking and sharing a few joints with the dude, I decided I should walk around and continue shooting. Right before I left the shack, though, he invited me on an impromptu journey up to the mountains to see his brother’s village — a 2.5 hour trip. He said he could show me how true Jamaicans live and eat off the land, see his pot plants, and meet the fellow villagers. I couldn't give this chance up, so we decided to meet the next morning.
That morning, I walked over to our specified meeting place around 7AM, a little nervous of what was about to go down. I waited about 20 minutes, and right before I considered leaving, the guy and his friend rally around the corner with a doob lit. He said to me, “Get in, we headed to the jungle,” so I jumped in his car and we took off. The music was so loud that the car was damn near shaking when the bass hit. Since he was already smoking, I decided I should fire off one of the pre-rolled spliffs I had tucked in my socks. I hit the thing, and the guy looks back and asks if he can take a hit. I said sure, but he quickly realized there was tobacco in it, and promptly rolled down his window, tossed the doobie, and didn’t look back or apologize.
After our trek up to the Blue Mountain Peak, a hybrid of jungle and mountains, we met the man’s brother, who began showing us around his shack. He also showed us his tapestries of Haile Selassie, his chickens, his coconut tree, and the way he planned to cook us a feast. This involved a tutorial where he demonstrated how to carve out old gourds to use as dining plates. All of the food he cooked for us was from his garden around the village, and the way he took pride in food prep was something I’ll never forget. He was slicing lettuce, stoking the fire, steaming the rice, cooking the ackee, and simultaneously cutting open coconuts for us and handing around huge doobies.
Soon, the food was ready, and it was one of the most spectacular dining experiences I have had to date. The meal was so fresh and pure; it was like nothing I have ever had in the states. Sitting there smoking, eating, and drinking with these guys out in the middle of the jungle felt special — not something every visitor gets the honor to see. It was intimate, authentic, and totally organic — in more ways than one. After we ate, we took a walk around the village, and the brothers showed me where they grew food, as well as the best coconut tree in the village. We even made a pitstop at the grave site of their loved ones, which was tucked behind the shack and featured cement caskets stacked on top of each other.
While these photos only offer a brief vantage into my adventure with the mountain men, they are an ode to these generous people who made my hastily-planned visit to the island a truly inimitable experience. If I ever have the fortune to make it back to Jamaica, there’s no question what I’d do on my trip. But this time, I'm bringing more film.