Jamaica has more to offer than sun, sand and water sports. Scenic mountains stretch across the island's interior, and a train ride through them provides unforgettable glimpses of a Jamaica that visitors seldom see.
It is a 113-mile, 5 1/2-hour trip between Kingston, on the island's southeast coast, and Montego Bay, on the northwest coast. Every morning -- and again in the afternoon -- trains leave both cities for the journey through the remotest parts of this mountainous island. Not long ago I boarded the train in Montego Bay for my fourth trip on the train, which is used primarily by locals.
Activity around the station begins soon after daybreak. Vans from local businesses deliver freight packages. Nearly all passengers arrive on foot, and many are accompanied by friends or relatives. Vendors on the station's porch sell breakfast foods like cheese, biscuits, pastry and a popular Jamaican dish, saltfish and bammy (cassava bread).
People crowd into the small waiting room. One line forms to buy tickets; another waits for the opening of the gates that lead to the train. Passengers include farmers, schoolchildren, Rastafarians and workers going to small shops and factories in the mountains. One farmer carries a box of peeping baby chicks.
The first rays of sunshine appear over the eastern hills of Montego Bay, the whistle blows and the train pulls out of the station. As it slowly climbs the hills on the opposite side of the city, passengers are treated to a panoramic view that includes the bay and green fields of sugar cane.
On its upward climb, the train goes through three tunnels, emerging into coconut and banana plantations. Few roads penetrate these mountains; the population is sparse and the view is constantly changing: Small garden plots containing maize, yams, beans, pumpkins and cabbage are planted along the hillsides. Ferns cover the rocks of railroad passes, and flowers blaze everywhere -- purple bougainvillea, the red-orange blooms of the poinciana tree and golden hibiscus. Dense forests give way to deep gorges; there are limestone cliffs and an occasional stream.
The train's pew-type seats can be uncomfortable, and the ride is sometimes bumpy. But the crew and passengers are friendly and willing to point out sites along the route. Each car has a lavatory, and the train's open windows provide a cooling breeze.
Stops are made in towns with unusual names like Anchovy, Ipswich, Catadupa, Maggotty, Balaclava and Duck Pond. At some stations, women sell tropical fruit from baskets carried on their heads.
In a lot across from the Catadupa train station, women place large bolts of cloth on racks. The cloth will be used to make shirts and dresses for tourists who arrive on later trains. Around Appleton, passengers might spot carts loaded with sugar cane that will be taken to the rum distillery.
Near the center of the mountains, huge scoops of earth have been removed from hillsides and the soil is a deep red. What's being mined is bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made. Jamaica has a few refineries, but most of the bauxite ore is carried by train to northern ports for shipment to other countries. Bauxite and tourism are Jamaica's leading industries.
As the train approaches the Greenvale station, a large sign reads, "Summit -- Montego Bay Line -- 1,705 feet above sea level." Greenvale is the scheduled meeting point of the train coming from Kingston and the train from Montego Bay. Or, if one of the trains is late, the meeting will occur at the next station, or the next.
The second half of the journey is as picturesque as the first, with many glimpses of Jamaicans in their day-to-day activities. Schoolchildren often walk long distances to their schools and a few linger at the railroad track, the girls in plaid jumpers, the boys in khaki shirts and pants. Women wash clothes in small pools and carry water from public standpipes. Men bathe in streams and irrigation canals, turning their backs when the train goes by.
Many of the Jamaican houses that you see from the train are raised on stone blocks to provide a breezeway underneath. Since fencing material is expensive, cows and donkeys are tethered to poles so they don't wander onto the railroad track. Chickens, pigs and goats roam freely.
Some of the sugar-cane fields obviously have been devastated by fires, but the burnings aren't accidental. The fires are set to destroy insects and sharp leaves, which can slice the hands of the sugar-cane cutters. After the fields are burned, only the canes are left standing, ready for the cutters' sharp machetes.
I learned long ago to expect the unexpected on these Jamaican train rides. On one of my journeys, one of the train's doors fell off. On another, the train was delayed by a cow crossing the track. And although it is discouraged by the crew, young men frequently climb on top of the moving train to prove their bravery. Jamaican passengers accept these minor crises without complaint and say, "No problem."
As the train enters the outskirts of Kingston, you see long rows of tin shanties. Off to the north are the Blue Mountains, where some of the world's finest coffee is grown. Billows of smoke pour from Kingston's numerous factories.
As the train pulls into the Kingston station, friends and relatives crowd around to greet passengers. Some Jamaicans disembark with boxes of vegetables, straw handcrafts and wood carvings, items that will be sold at the marketplace on Kingston's busy sidewalks.
Trains depart Kingston daily at 6:50 a.m. and 3 p.m.; Montego Bay departures are at 6:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. One-way tickets are about $ 3 for economy class, about $ 5 for first class. On the train, vendors sell newspapers, soda, candy, ice cream, popcorn, boxed juices and Wrigley's chewing gum.
Gene Haschak writes a bimonthly column for Taxnews, an Illinois publication.