Doranja House Bnb
It was a short flight to the island—just an hour from Fort Lauderdale to Montego Bay, Jamaica. Most of the plane seemed to be flying home, but I was coming to the island to attend a Wellness Retreat in Treasure beach, at the Doranja House Bnb. My life had come to a crashing halt, and this retreat had become necessary to the point where I was putting all else on hold until I felt like myself again. It was my first time to visit, yet I was too tired on a soul level to even feel excited about it.
I'd been instructed to meet the rest of the retreat-goers at the Groovy Grouper, which I thought was a ride-share service and was picturing a VW bus with psychedelic mushrooms painted on the side. But when I stepped outside the airport, a friendly taxi driver pointed out the open-aired pub with "Groovy Grouper" carved just about the tiki bar. I lugged my suitcase onto the porch of the bar, weaving through the locals and tourists, who were milling about with broad smiles and Red Stripe beers in hand, jiving to the reggae beat. My group was sitting along the rail—I assumed it was them because they also looked exhausted—and I introduced myself, and joined them. Soon I was holding a sweating lager in front of me and trying to unwind as the sweet, tangy aromas of pot and tobacco mingled in the air. I sighed and took in the delightfully laid-back accents of the islands, hoping that I, too, would find my chill here.
The bus arrived, and we rode through Montego Bay on a road that bordered the jade-colored ocean—past resorts with perfect beaches and hammocks that rested on the transparent waves, past the bars and restaurants and open markets, far away from the bustle of the city. The world around us became a jungle, and kudzu and ivy climbed the thick trees. Red-orange blossoms weighed down the forest canopy, and mobs 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 doorframes, stone patios, crumbling staircases—only to be swallowed again by the jungle.
The bus hugged the left side of the narrow roads, winding on and on, around too sharp of curves, cavernous holes, 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. Finally, we reached a road it couldn't cross, and we all got out to stroll the rest of the way by cell-phone glow down a dirt road. It was quiet, save for the cicadas, and endless fields seemed to roll in every direction from the path.
Finally, a lamp shone at a windowsill in the bend ahead. The way 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—and was dead to the world until morning came.
The world sang differently just before dawn, and it woke me gently—I opened my eyes, and found myself in a purple room, bathed in soft light. The windows were open. The morning breeze rustled through the gauzy curtains, carrying the damp greenness of the rainforest and the melodies of unfamiliar birds. 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 it, and after some miles, it caught itself and began to climb again, ascending to two ridges of grey-green 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 mahogany-rouged fruit. I hadn't seen a mango tree in ten years, since my summer in Africa; it 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 a jeweled turquoise, not a quarter mile away, bright and alluring in the new light, and the salt in the air mingled with the green-smell of a rainforest. I spread my arms and filled my lungs with the ocean air, as the sun warmed my skin, feeling certain that 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.
The calm was pervasive. I hadn't realized how much low-level frenetic energy charged the air in the States until I stepped into a haven like this—without WiFi, or cell service, or emails propelling me towards some future goal that had to be obtained if my life was ever going to count for anything. Over the next twelve days at the Doranja House, my phone remained off with rare exception and was lost in the recesses of my suitcase. After a few days, I didn't miss it anymore and felt myself settling into the rhythms of island life, and liking myself all the better for it.
Mornings began leisurely, with smooth percolated coffee in the portico at nine. Life was slower. It gave me time to think, to explore the cove and swim in the 74-degree water; time to write and journal and reconnect to everything I'd been too busy to feel or process, and time to find the underlying pulse of life again. We lounged together with our white mugs, around the tables covered with cheery pineapple-checkered cloths, and watched the light stream through the palm trees. Every wall of the portico was painted in a different white hue, 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 for hours over those breakfasts, savoring the slowness and dipping the johnny cakes in our second and third mugs of coffee as we shared the stories we'd brought with us from different sides of the country. I've always loved humans the most when they were not attached to screens that took them elsewhere. Their stories were always better, the memories more vivid. The connections ran deeper, and life settled into what is here and now. I'm not sure any of us had ever been this present. The disconnect from the rest of the world brought an intimate connection with this world and each other, one that I greatly preferred.
The days were filled however you wished them to be filled, with tours or exploration or hammocks. The slowness and freedom allowed all of us what we needed to relax. I went with my new friend, Mare, to get a massage from a Rasta healer named Shirley. Doreen drove the two of us to the woman's little refuge—a property 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. Shirley strode slowly out to greet us—a tiny, wiry woman, with long fingers, a weathered face, and a strength and presence about her disproportionate to her stature. 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. Mare 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 don't be silly, 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, and the added heat of the sauna pushed me back, but Ruchiene laughed and told us she'd herd us in 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 was a fascinating thing to be in naked conversation with a stranger I'd met just days earlier, and I recommend it. There are 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 melted away, and did not return.
And we talked about the truer things.
Ruchiene pulled back the curtain, and placed a stick in the cauldron, directing us to stir. I don't know what herbs were in the brew, but when we stirred, it smelled of Christmas and new life—crisp pine green, mixed with nutmeg and cinnamon and cedar, and spices I couldn't place. After the steam, the two women took us back into the round hut and worked on our bodies as the breeze went cross-ways through the circular room. I felt and released tension from places that I had no idea I held stress, as Shirley commanded us to let it all go and to trust that the body knew what it was doing and could handle the pain of releasing better than it could handle the pain of resisting.
Like everything I experienced on the island, it healed me in more profound ways I had anticipated.
And we all caught up on the business of living—really living. Time slowed, and we journaled and wrote and felt all the things we'd been too busy to process, and reconnected ourselves again to the Heart of Life. We sang, and danced, and shared laughter and stories, and all the delicious food anyone could wish for, and rum punch, and Red Stripe, and Pina Coladas. The afternoons would often find me lounging in the shade with the other retreaters, watching the V's of the palm trees ripple above my head, swimming at Treasure Beach, or just wandering the island alone without feeling alone, and savoring the experience of being present in my own life.
Doranja House was far enough from the noise of the city that there was no light pollution or noise from the city, yet with restaurants and pubs and cafes within walking distance. Some days, I meandered to town with my new friends and swapped music at an oceanside café called Jake's, drinking coffee and eating watermelon sorbet. We went to Fisherman's for the best goat curry I'd ever tasted, and to Jack Sprat's, where we ate seafood and drank cocktails and swam in the silver water just off the restaurant pier. We caught a boat with Captain Dennis to the famous Pelican Bar—which sat in the middle of the ocean—and drank Rum Punch on the dock, and went deeper into the island to see the waterfalls and many beautiful things.
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 friendships I forged at Doranja House. There was a Blood Moon on our final night there, and we lit a massive bonfire in the middle of the field. We howled at the moon, and broke into songs ("I get by with a little help from my friends…") and laughed too hard at too many things to keep track of...
Hours later, we had all collapsed around the embers in silence, trying to hold it all in, trying to stretch these last moments of island tranquility out into the rest of our lives. I was lying on my back, next to Doreen's daughter, Sidi, and we were gazing up at the sky, and I was listening to her tell me how hard it can be to say goodbye to the groups who came through here, because everyone always got so close, and became like family. We laid there for hours and traced the lines that connected the stars to each other and to us, and when morning came, no one was ready to say goodbye.
There are many remarkably beautiful things transpiring in all the corners of the world, but here, at Doranja House, you might just rediscover the Heart of Life.