domingo, 31 de maio de 2009


The many wonderful things about Jamaica – its extraordinary music-making, its physical beauty, its athletic prowess (six sprinting gold medals at the Beijing Olympics) – contrast harshly with the crime, violence and political corruption. Tourists rarely see anything of the twisted side of island life. Yet almost every Jamaican knows someone who has been threatened with a gun or knife – or murdered.

The island’s reputation for violence, however, is only part of the picture. Rural Jamaica especially has an alluring atmosphere that cannot be guessed at behind the walls of the tourist beach resorts. Hardly visited these days is Cinchona, a botanical garden due east of Kingston, the capital. To older Jamaica hands, Cinchona is a place of remarkable charm, and one of the best-kept secrets in the West Indies.

Cinchona Gardens began life in the 1860s as an experimental quinine station. The cinchona plants had provided quinine as an antidote to malaria. Competition from cinchona grown in imperial India, however, soon undermined the project and, a decade later in 1874, the quinine station was transformed into a pleasure garden and haven for orchid-fanciers. William Nock of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was summoned from London to oversee the transformation. Before long he was inviting fellow botanists to see the night-flowering shrubs and magical efflorescence of sub-tropical flora.

Situated 5,000ft up in the Blue Mountains, Cinchona is determinedly off the tourist track. I was advised to visit with Andreas Oberli, a Swiss-born botanist living in Kingston, who was keen to see how the gardens had fared after the assaults of a recent hurricane. Before setting off, we weighted Oberli’s pick-up with cement blocks for balance: the road to the gardens was not good, he said, and the ballast would help reduce the risk of skidding. By midday the nose of the concrete-heavy Mitsubishi was pointing permanently skywards, as the road edged along vaporous ravines with swirls of thin mist. Occasionally the rolling greenness was broken by the crimson flare of an African tulip; the same shrubbery, said Oberli, typified the Italian regions of Switzerland.

Not for the first time, Jamaica struck me as a place of voluptuous, overripe beauty. Waxy-leaved frangipani and outbursts of orange-white blossom enhanced the Blue Mountain road we were now on, a scene that cannot have changed since the 1680s when Sir Hans Sloane botanised his way across it (and subsequently gave his name to London’s Sloane Square).

However, as we approached Yallahs Valley, the landscape was not so lush. A couple of bridges were down, and landslip had washed out parts of the road. Twice our pick-up got stuck in rough ground. “Thank God it hasn’t rained,” Oberli said, “otherwise all would be mud.” In these devastated surroundings, sweat-soaked and covered in roadside dust, I caught my first glimpse of Cinchona Gardens. By the entrance was the melancholy spectacle of a tulip tree and a eucalyptus uprooted by the hurricane. Yet beyond the iron gates, Cinchona’s beauty, with its lilac hydrangeas and rivers of blue azaleas, was overwhelming. The place appeared almost theatrical – the creation of some rhapsodising set-designer. Once inside I was aware of a hushed, almost private atmosphere that felt remote from the world.

Oberli, camera slung round his neck, took photographs of a clump of Assam tea bushes planted by William Nock more than a century ago. He stumbled on a lone lily with an odd, crinkly bloom. “Oh, you are a beauty!” he exclaimed and, crouching low, photographed it too. Strange gold ferns – green on the outside, gold underneath – glinted exotically in the afternoon light. Oberli has been associated with Cinchona since 1982, when he was appointed the gardens’ project manager. His brief was to restore the botanical “Sleeping Beauty” to its Victorian state; it took him four years to accomplish the task.

The observatory house had been vandalised and the glass palm-houses imported from Kew had collapsed. In the mid-1980s, Jamaica’s then prime minister, Edward Seaga, wanted to develop Cinchona as his own private country club, complete with tennis courts and a helicopter-landing pad. Oberli, to his credit, helped to block the project.

As dusk fell, a bamboo scent reached into our lungs and the mountain mists began to clear. Half a dozen Rastas were lying among the rose beds outside the observatory house smoking ganja. The plantsmen seemed to be enjoying the beauty of the mountains in the fading light. “The more you smoke,” one of them eventually announced to me, “the more Babylon fall.” (Babylon, in Rasta-speak, means oppressive colonial society; more loosely, the police.) He took a long drag at his carrot-shaped cigarette and introduced himself as Lloyd Stamp, keeper of Cinchona Gardens since 1978. He was a big man whose belly hung off him like a dead weight. With a sigh he began to complain to Oberli of his employers, the ministry of agriculture, who for the past 30 years had failed to provide him with adequate security.

“Thieves creep up here at night, Mr Oberli, and steal the Bermuda Ladies and orchids,” Stamp said. “Man, I need some guard dogs.”

“Yah, dogs are good,” Oberli agreed. “Dogs keep you alert – and they alert you.” There seemed little likelihood that Stamp would get them. People mostly avoided Cinchona. Even the mountainside farmers, who were no strangers to solitude, kept away from the godforsaken loneliness of this outpost.

Nothing, though, could tempt Stamp or his staff to work elsewhere, especially not Kingston. The city was a “creation of the devil”, he said. What used to be considered a crime in Kingston is now judged a non-crime. “Is Satan take over now,” Stamp judged. It was almost dark and the air, not yet cool, had a tired end-of-the-day smell of damp earth.

I looked out across the valley to the Blue Mountain Peak in all its ethereal majesty and sapphire tinge. I felt lucky to be up here, enjoying the dimming view. “If life is fair,” Stamp looked at me, “you will have to come and see us again.” in Financial Times, 2/3 de Maio de 2009

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