Doranja House in Jamaica

It was a short flight to the island—just an hour from Fort Lauderdale to Montego Bay, Jamaica—and most of the plane seemed to be flying home. When I landed, I went easily through customs, and responded to the questions of a curt women behind the desk by responding that I was staying at the Doranja House BnB, and was there for a Wellness retreat. I’d been instructed to meet at the Groovy Grouper, which I thought was a ride-share service. I pictured a VW bus with psychedelic mushrooms painted on the side, but when I stepped outside the airport, a friendly taxi driver pointed out a open-aired pub with “Groovy Grouper” carved just about the tiki bar. I lugged my suitcase onto the porch of the bar, weaving through carefree locals, who milled with Red Stripe beers in hand and jiving to the reggae beats. The rest of the group waiting for the shuttle to Treasure Beach was sitting along the rail and I joined them, introducing myself and began to unwind. Sweet, tangy aromas of pot and tobacco mingled in the thick air, and all around me were the delightfully laid-back accents of the islands.

A few hours later, we boarded a bus and rode through Montego Bay, on a highway that ran along te jade-colored ocean, past resorts with perfect beaches and hammocks that rested on the clear waves, past bars and restaurants and open markets, away from the hustle of the city. The world around us became like a jungle, and kudzu and ivy climbed the thick trees, whose tops were covered with red-orange blossoms. Little groups of free-ranging kid-goats scavenged and bleated along the road. Houses in all stages of disuse and construction seemed to grow out of the hills—rose windows, open door-frames, and half-completed roofs. Our driver explained that Jamaicans built their houses little by little as there was money; new floors and roofs and walls came along as there was cash to complete it, and not according to need.

The bus hugged the left side of the narrow roads, honking at people and cars and other buses, not to give warning, but as a greeting and people waved back in response. After an hour and a stop at a jerk chicken stand, the bus wound on and on, around too sharp of curves, pots in the road, gangs of goats, and slow-moving pedestrians, until it was too dark to see outside and all that was visible was the narrow beam before us from the headlights and the first glimmer of stars.

The shuttle dropped us off a few at a time, until it reached a road it couldn’t cross, and we all got out to walk. The group strolled by flashlight and cell-phone glow down a dirt road potted with holes, with what felt like land expanding on every direction from the sides of the path. Crickets and grasshoppers jumped through the light and cicadas sang in the trees. Our guide told us stories about an alligator he’d come across on this road one night, and we laughed, and jumped nervously as the ghostly shadow of a white cow rustled through the scrub-brush trees.

Finally, a lamp shone at a windowsill at the bend ahead. The path broadened and coconut trees arched above our heads, their overlapping froms like black hashtags against the pale moonlit-sky. The square silhouettes of a large house and an open portico appeared, and a smiling Jamaican woman strode from the doorframe and pulled each of us into a strong hug in greeting, introducing herself as Doreen. The Doranja House BnB was her’s and her family’s, and she would be our host during the twelve-day stay on the island.

I don’t remember much of what happened the rest of the night, except that I was exhausted, and collapsed in my bedroom—just off the second-story balcony—as soon as possible.

The world sings differently just before dawn, and it woke me gently—I opened my eyes, bathed in soft light. The windows were open, and light gauzy curtains were waving against purple walls. The morning breeze coming through the window smelled like a rainforest and carried the unfamiliar songs of birds and the hum of cicadas. From my bed, I stretched my arm to push the curtains back, and could see East, across the hills. The house sat on a rise; the land dipped before us, and after some miles, it caught itself and began to climb again, ascending to two ridges of hills in the distance.

I dressed quickly, and stepped out onto the balcony. White, stork-like birds called Gauldings, flew unhurriedly through the thick peach light that was growing ever more intense behind the second ridge as dawn approached. Around the house, were akee trees, loose-leafed, with red bell-shaped fruit, rising above the height of the balcony. Tightly-domed mango trees lined the yard, bright with orange fruit—I realized I hadn’t seen a mango tree in ten years, since my summer in Africa; it was a soft remembrance, and felt like coming home.

I went back into the house, and climbed the stairs to the roof, to explore the world from the piles, as the sun crested the ridge and warmed my skin. I could see in all directions from here—the ocean was bright and welcoming in the new light, and the salt in the air mingled with the smells of rainforest. I spread my arms and filled my lungs with the ocean air, as the sun brushed against my skin, feeling certain I had found paradise. A conversation carried to my ears from the valley in the distance, at least a mile away—two men in a disagreement, voices growing strong with frustration and conflict, and then just as suddenly melting into laughter and affection. It made me smile.

The calm here is pervasive. You don’t realize quite how much frenetic energy charges the air in the States, until you step into a space like this—without WiFi, or cell service, or emails propelling you towards some future goal that must be realized before your life counts as much as it will when your to-do list is complete. Over the twelve days I stayed at the Doranja House, my phone remained off, with rare exception, lost in the recesses of my suitcase. After a few days, I felt myself changing and unwinding, settling into the rhythms of island life, and liking myself all the better for it.

The breakfasts began at 9, with coffee. I lounged in the open porticos with the other retreaters with our white mugs, around the tables covered with cheery pineapple-checkered cloths, watching light stream through the palm trees. Every wall was brightly-colored, and the house shone in sherbet tones as the sun rose higher. The breakfasts were delicious, usually consisting of scrambled eggs (made from the Akee fruit in the trees) with mushrooms and herbs, fried plantains, and dense johnny cakes that were salty on the outside with a slight sweetness on the inside. Mangos that had fallen overnight were always piled to the center of the table, and we ate them leisurely, peeling them down from the top like a banana. We lingered over these breakfasts, dipped our johnny cakes in our second mugs of coffee as we shared stories and laughed and wondered at long it had been since any of us had felt this present.

I’ve always loved humans the most when they were not attached to screens that took them elsewhere. Their stories were always better, their memories more vivid, the connections ran deeper, and life settled into what is here and now.

A friend I’d made there signed up for a massage with me, and Doreen drove the two of us to the house of a Rasta woman named Shirley. We came into a little refuge, with trees with low spreading branches, filled with fragrant blossoms. A cobbled walk wound to a shaded area with stone benches, and we sat to wait for Shirley. She came out to greet us, a tiny, wiry woman, with long fingers, a weathered face, and a strength and presence about her disproportionate to her height. Doreen rose and embraced her jovially. Shirley turned to us with hands on hips and waved us into the building warmly, directing us to place all our clothes in the wardrobe, then enter the sauna through the back door in the hut. My companion hesitated at these directions and paused to question whether it was necessary to take off all our clothes, to which Shirley replied in a no-nonsense way that of course that was what she’d meant, and hurry—the herbs were almost done.

Clothing removed, we ducked slightly below the sight-line of the opened windows into the back sauna room, and followed a woman named Ruchiene into the next room. It was the middle of the summer in Jamaica, upper 90’s, and the added heat of the sauna repelled me, but Ruchiene laughed and motioned as if she’d herd us inside with her stick if needed, so I took a breath and ducked past the curtain, into a smaller room—maybe 5x4 feet—candlelit, with two seats on either side and an enormous cauldron between that appeared to be a hollowed tree-stump. It’s an interesting thing to be naked with a friend you’d made just days earlier—I recommend it. We have so many ways to hide from each other as humans, and more than a few layers of armor and pretense were removed with our clothes, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, when we sat there together in the tiny space with just the cauldron between us, the reserve I had felt from her previously melted away, and did not return.

Ruchiene placed a stick in the cauldron, and directed us to stir. I don’t know what herbs were in it, but when we stirred it, it smelled of Christmas—crisp pine green, mixed with nutmeg and cinnamon and cedar, and many things I couldn’t place. After the steam, the two women took us to the round hut and worked on our bodies as the breeze went cross-ways through the circular room, and I released tension from places that I had no idea I held stress.

Like everything I experienced on the island, it healed me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

The twelve days were magical. The afternoons would often find me lounging in the shade of the portico with the other retreaters, or swimming at Treasure Beach, watching the V’s of the palm trees ripple above our heads. Doranja House was located perfectly, away from light pollution and the noise of the city, on the edge of the vast ocean, yet with restaurants, and pubs, and cafes within walking and biking distance. Some days, I meandered to town with Jamie and swapped music at an oceanside café called Jake’s, drinking coffee and eating watermelon sorbet. The group went to Fisherman’s for the best goat curry I’ve ever tasted, and to Jack Sprat’s often, where we ate seafood and drank cocktails and swam in water just off the restaurant pier, and caught a boat to the Pelican Bar which sat in the middle of the ocean.

I had many adventures and new experiences on the island, but what I valued most from my time in Jamaica, was the peace and love I found on Treasure Beach, with Doreen’s family, and the new friends I’d made at Doranja House. It was a peace I would take home with me. For those twelve days life had become wonderfully simple—it was here and now, the stories shared around the fire, the stillness of the stars, the ocean in our ears, and the friendships we’d forged around Doreen’s table.  

It was all a gift.