Finding Roots in Jamaica

Blue Moutains in Kingston

As a Muslim of Jamaican heritage, I sometimes feel out of place back home. Local residents commonly assume I’m visiting from an exotic, distant land and not just another New Yorker visiting my folks for the holiday. Though Islam’s roots in the Caribbean date back to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (if not earlier), Jamaica does not yet have a highly visible Muslim community. The halal food selection is often limited to vegetarian or seafood, and it’s hard to find a mosque when you’re out and about. But, Islam is growing and I’ve recently discovered new opportunities for Muslim travelers in Jamaica.

Turtle Beach in Ocho Rios

Burgundy Roots, formerly known as Sip of Love Retreats, has been shuttling visitors to Jamaica in a totally new way. The mixed Jamaican and Canadian team promises an immersive travel experience that is Muslim-friendly with halal meals and mosque visits. But they inclusively invite all seekers of adventure and culture with a sustainable and community-supported approach to tourism. Connecting with my own travel ethic, I leapt at the opportunity to spend a few days with Burgundy Roots as my host before connecting with my kin in Kingston.

After flying into Montego Bay, we were whisked out of the city and through the country roads by our driver and chef, Leon. Our flight delay meant we wouldn’t arrive in time to taste his award-winning cooking for dinner, but he knew where to find the best ital stew to assuage our appetites. An overlooked stand along an unlit road served a soup so rich that I could taste every earthen ingredient from red beans to groundnuts. With much further to go, I bobbed in and out of sleep until meeting Burgundy Roots founder, Wafa Aouchiche, at our private villa in Treasure Beach. She led us to a spacious room furnished with fine woodwork, high, cozy beds and air conditioning. My earliest memories of summertime on the island are filled with sleepless, sweaty nights under mosquito nets and fans, so the AC was a welcomed relief. Wafa brought cool water, showed us the prayer direction, and left us to sleep peacefully for the night.

Stirring with my children after sunrise, the aroma of fresh thyme, curry, and sweet coconut milk brought me to full consciousness. Chef Leon is no stranger to meatless cooking and whips up a pumpkin katari stew alongside lightly steamed seasonal vegetables effortlessly. While waiting to set out, we slipped over to Treasure Beach to greet the wild waves and prepare to meet a Muslim beekeeper in the countryside and visit Masjid as-Salaam in St. Elizabeth.

Stush in the Bush1

Venturing upward to the North Coast, we slowed our stride to traverse the bumpiest road I’ve felt in a while. Carefully, we climbed up to meet Chris who took us to Free Hill where he grew up before migrating to Canada. After taking in the mountaintop view, we rode a few bumps back down and turned into an organic oasis better known as STUSH in the BUSH. 15 acres of fertile land support the farm-to-table restaurant, food delivery service, and product line that Chris and his wife, Lisa, own and operate. Living as free as their hill promises, they work, rest, and thrive in a rustic dwelling surrounded by lush greenery, crisp mountain air, and enough modernity to remain on ‘the grid.’

Stush in the Bush2

Chefs Lisa and Taylor served homemade plantain chips and yam croquettes, served with guacamole and Blow Fyah pepper sauce, as we talked about life and the land that supports it. On our farm tour, we tasted tree-ripened jackfruit and tangerines, then had a pop quiz about the vegetables and herbs we could identify. Our night concluded with a stunning sunset and curated five-course meal that included STUSH in the BUSH’s signature Zionites Farm Green Salad, Black Bean Soup, Fire-Roasted Pizza, handmade pasta, and Lemon Pound Cake. They’ve grown accustomed to Muslim visitors and respectfully offer a place to pray before bidding us farewell.

Venturing to the Blue Mountains above Kingston, we perched at Mount Edge Guest House for the night. We drifted to slumber basking in the cool breeze and rose with the birds for Morning Prayer. Once the rising sun evaporated the morning mist, we were greeted by the panoramic view of endless green mountains that fade into shades of blue in the distance. Our delicious farm-fresh breakfast began with the internationally known Blue Mountain coffee and freshly blended fruit punch, followed by plantain and banana flambé, stewed ackee, boiled green bananas and dumplings. We went on to hike in the nearby National Park to behold an unobstructed vista of the bustling capital beneath us.

Jamaican Breakfast

This retreat was a much-needed change of routine for me. I had grown so accustomed to the same places and faces that Jamaica had lost its enchantment to me. I’m frustrated by the crime and poverty in the city centers but forgot the gracious hospitality that abounds from the capital to the countryside. Having a Muslim host arrange the transportation, accommodations, and itinerary allowed me to relish in the experience and see my homeland through a refreshed set of eyes. I have a renewed appreciation for the island’s beauty but also for the entrepreneurs who are etching their mark and creating a new future for the land we love. I’m fortunate to be in touch with what the emerging sustainable tourism market is serving and look forward to planning another adventure with Burgundy Roots once again.

This article was originally published in Rihaal Magazine, Issue 3, Spring 2018. 

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