"I remember . . . " was the class assignment, and the phrase took me back, as it always does, to the intersection of Hope, Trafalgar and Waterloo roads in Kingston, Jamaica. My grandmother was born in a house on that site, called Reka Dom, in 1900. I recall passing through that intersection with her when I was a child, and she would quote, "I remember, I remember, The house where I was born."
   Her family moved out of the house shortly after the 1907 earthquake; the building there that I used to see was built by the subsequent owner.
   In July 1996, I passed that corner and saw that the building had been gutted by fire earlier in the year. It has since been demolished.
   I remember the house, not two miles as the john crow flies from Reka Dom, in which I grew up, as my father and his siblings did before me.
   Built in 1930, with thick limestone walls and high ceilings to reduce the effects of the tropical sun, it faces away from the street. The front veranda looks toward the mountains northeast of the city.
   I left that house, and that country, as an 18-year-old. Since then I have returned many times, but always as a visitor.
   In 1996, my Kentucky-born husband, Grant, accompanied me, to be introduced to my homeland.
   When people hear that I come from Jamaica, their reactions usually lead me to believe that they think of Jamaica as a sort of tropical theme park, just for lucky or wealthy people to visit and relax.
   Or else they bring up the entertainment industry, heavily rooted in reggae music.
   North coast areas such as Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are full of all-inclusive resorts that, I understand, feed this fantasy well. The island is blessed with great natural beauty, and I'm not knocking the tourist industry at all. But too many people think there is only one aspect to Jamaica.
   I have news for them. It's not a theme park or jet-setter's playground, although it may contain those. It's a Third World country. People are born, live, die and are buried there. And the graveyards are not among the beauty spots.
   My husband's only previous visit to Jamaica lasted 40 hours — from a Friday afternoon to a Sunday morning. He was there to attend my aunt's funeral. The U.S. Customs officer who interviewed him on his return was dubious when Grant said he had done no sightseeing and no souvenir-shopping. He had met family and friends, read a Scripture lesson and helped carry a coffin.
   By contrast, July's planned trip was a hectic week of renewing old acquaintances, discovering changes, playing tourist and visiting locations I had either never seen or had not seen since I was small. I also learned new things about my homeland and my family because information was being shared with my husband in my presence.
   I saw relatives I had never met before and others I had not seen in years, and photographed every one of them while my mother interviewed them for family tree information.
   My ancestors have been born and living and dying and buried in Jamaica for more than 300 years. The earliest arrivals that I know about were named Cargill; they migrated from Scotland either a few years before or a couple of years after the Port Royal earthquake of 1692 (depending on which relative is telling the story.) According to family tradition — unsupported by any documentation — they were somehow related to one Donald Cargill, a Covenanter who was executed in Edinburgh in 1681 for his preaching.
   The latest arrivals among my forebears were three of my great-great-grandparents, who arrived from England during the middle of the 19th century. One of those was a missionary, Enos Nuttall, who later became the first Anglican Archbishop of the West Indies.
   Many people, when they hear "Jamaica," think "beach" — white sand, several shades of blue Caribbean Sea and coconut trees.
   But when I think about visiting Jamaica, I look forward to visiting the mountains. The highest one, Blue Mountain Peak, is 7,402 feet above sea level. I have never been there. But I have hiked in the Blue Mountains several times, looked around an old coffee mill and taken a dare to swim in a cold mountain stream.
   On this trip, I discovered that in 1993 Jamaica created a national park system that includes some of my favorite places.
Oft-repeated legend has it that Columbus, asked to describe the island he discovered in 1494, crumpled a piece of paper in his hand to give an idea of the topography.
   To me, traveling around the mountains, the land looks as a cardboard egg carton might appear to an ant crawling around on it. Especially if the carton were green. The hillsides are covered with trees, and coming from drought-suffering San Antonio, we were very aware of how green the whole island was.
   The roads hug the sides of the mountains and a low retaining wall or bank warns travelers away from a long downward plunge. The car horn comes into its own on these roads, alerting unseen drivers around the next turn to one's approach and requesting the same courtesy in reply.
   We drove all over the eastern two-thirds of the island, passing through nine of Jamaica's 14 parishes.
   Different levels of transportation technology coexist on Jamaican roads, from late model cars to the occasional donkey cart — and bicycles, lots of bicycles. Many a bicycle built for one bore an extra rider. Other bicycles were parked beside little fruit, craft or souvenir stalls that dot the roadsides.
   For a while one morning on the road to Mandeville, we followed a taxi driver who apparently wanted to share his religious views with his fellow road-users. In neat white capital letters on the back window of the cab were the words, "Jesus Run Tings."
   The road surface conditions ranged from poor to worse. Some were almost smooth. Most were full of potholes. Some simply seemed to be dry river-beds.
   Two road-repair crews remain in our memories. Just outside Kingston, two flag men stood a few yards apart to divert traffic around the repair work. In theory, each should be equipped with two cloth flags: one red, to stop cars, and one green, to signal drivers on.
   In practice, each man had a red flag made from a flattened juice carton of approximately the right color. One also wielded a green flag: a fresh, leafy twig.
   Much farther from Kingston, we were stopped by a makeshift roadblock. On the other side of the rock barricades, men with shovels and a wheelbarrow were filling potholes. A representative of the crew approached our car and explained that the residents of the area, tired of waiting for the government to take care of the needed repairs, were fixing the road themselves. He requested a small donation toward their expenses.
   Grant considered giving them our empty soda bottles — redeemable for a deposit close to the amount being requested — but we gave them cash. They moved their barricade, and we were on our way to Port Antonio, with detours to Bath, St. Thomas, and Reach Falls, Portland.
   At Bath, birthplace of my maternal grandfather, Maurice McGann, we paused to point out the botanical gardens, established in 1779.
   Reach Falls, which I had visited only once before leaving in 1983, offered a delightful swim in an unspoiled natural setting and the opportunity to climb rocks and plunge through a waterfall into a small cave.
   My father and husband are both history buffs. So my dad enjoyed taking us to Port Royal, which was a pirate port known as "the wickedest city in the world" until it was destroyed by an earthquake in June 1692.
   We looked at a famous gravestone, outside St. Peter's Church in Port Royal, which tells the remarkable story of Lewis Galdy.
   Galdy was swallowed up into the earth by one tremor and then ejected by another. He lived for 47 years after the event.
   Grant observed with amusement a "No Parking" sign affixed to the wall of Fort Charles in Port Royal, with cannon to right of it, cannon to left of it. But later, we saw people park in front of the sign, and the cannon neither volleyed nor thundered.
   My father also took us to the Cathedral in Spanish Town, known as Santiago de la Vega when it became Jamaica's capital in 1534. In 1872, that honor passed to Kingston.
   Among the cathedral's many graves and memorial stones is a bust of my great-great-grandfather, Archbishop Nuttall, who is buried, not in the cathedral, but under a large tombstone outside the St. Andrew Parish Church.
   The English captured Jamaica from the Spanish in the mid-17th century and held onto it for three centuries until independence in 1962.
   Built in 1662 on the site of a Spanish church, the cathedral, the oldest Anglican cathedral outside England, was destroyed by hurricane in 1712 and rebuilt in 1714.
   The road to Hardwar Gap, in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, passes over the parade ground of the Jamaica Defence Force's installation at Newcastle.
   At about 3,800 feet above sea level, Newcastle is easily recognized from Kingston as a cluster of red roofs on the mountainside. We stopped there to inspect the collection of regimental badges adorning a wall — and yet another cannon.
   Grant found a plaque which informed him the cannon was brought from Port Royal to Newcastle in 1906. It added the statement, "It took several weeks to get to Newcastle as it had to be pulled by mules."
   The cannon must have made the first part of its journey across Kingston Harbour by boat, since the road from Kingston to Port Royal was not completed until 1936.
   That road to Port Royal is another place where family history and national history meet; as we drove out there, my mother mentioned with pride that it was surveyed by her father.
   The Jamaica-as-theme-park image is probably the reason many visitors to the island never go near my hometown, Kingston.
   Kingston is the name both of the smallest parish in Jamaica and of the city that overflows its boundaries to include several square miles of the surrounding parish of St. Andrew. The city starts on the north side of Kingston Harbour and spreads over the Liguanea Plain, with suburbs climbing the hills that rise to the north and east.
   Downtown Kingston is crowded; the streets are narrow, built in an earlier time. If cleanliness is next to godliness, the sanctity of both Kingston and its harbor is extremely questionable.
   North of downtown, the city opens up a little bit, but not much. The Corporate Area — Kingston and urban St. Andrew — is a place to carry on the business of living, not a beauty spot. Still, one can lift one's eyes to the surrounding hills from almost anywhere in town, and escape to those hills with a few minutes' driving.
   The Jamaican dollar is worth about one-tenth now of what it was when I moved away. Part of my old school has burned down. Gas station pumps are now operated mostly by women in bright uniforms instead of the men in scruffy clothes I remember. New buildings have appeared where open space used to be, and many people I knew have died. I have become a U.S. citizen and Grant's wife.
   Years have passed since I left home. But it is still home.

A version of this story was previously published online in the December 1996 edition of the Fourth Write, a project of the Department of Journalism-Photography at San Antonio College.


Copyright © E.R.N. Reed