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In Search of Bob Marley
The two highly conspicuous houses are perched amidst the hilly terrain, beautifully white, stained glass, multiple-port garages. Swimming pools! All of this among the much more humble, hilly surroundings of small houses and huts. Typical of most Jamaican countryside ... ganja kings, perhaps? We continue on up the narrow road, encountering donkeys burdened with cabbage for market. A quizzical look, and sometimes a whimsical smile from a passing local. Otherwise, we appear to draw little attention here in these mountains.
"Hi-pa," I sing in my best Jamaican "patoi" — the local lingo — the equivalent of the American "hi there!" We stop along the road and our Jamaican tour driver, Henry Bowen, shows us coffee trees and banana trees and coconut trees and more trees! (There are many useful spice trees in Jamaica — allspice, for example.) He stops and picks a sprig of allspice and cinnamon. Farther along the way he stops again and "higgles" with a farmer for a few heads of fresh cabbage. These will become a part of our evening meal, we later discover.
On into the hills of northern Jamaica we ride. Narrow roads in the midst of big international bauxite mining operations make traveling a bit slow. The 35-miles-from-MOBAY trip is into its second hour as the roads wind and wind and wind, through towns as old as from the times of Columbus. Destination ahead "atop a de' hill," shouts our driver, Henry. At last!
I stand on the road just away from our "pull over" spot. The terrain is very hilly and somewhat stark. "Tour Starts Inside," reads the sign on the building ahead. To my left, a beautiful house, seemingly out of place, like those other houses we saw on the trip up. We will later discover a more endearing story regarding this house. This tiny town to which we came at some hardship is called "Nine Mile." And it is the birth- and final resting place of Bob Marley.
The pretty white home perched along the road is, by the way, the home of Bunnie Wailer's sister, or Peter Tosh's? The confusion comes from two independent interpretations of our tour guide's story, which don't emerge until we are on our way down the road and hence unable to clarify the confusion. At any rate it's the sister of one of them, and the house was built for her by the brother.
Almost everything about Bob Marley — his memorial, his museum, the Marley Foundation and everything else — is located in Kingston, Jamaica. But not the place of his final rest. It's in the quiet northern mountain countryside he called home.
Beyond a gate and up a somewhat steep drive sit several structures visible from the road. On a steep bank there is a small chapelesque structure next to a more traditional Jamaican hill country house. The house belonged to Marley's mother, so the story goes. Inside the small chapel-like structure — complete with stained glass — embalmed and entombed in Italian stone, Marley lies in repose six feet above the ground.
We take the perfunctory tour and ask the perfunctory questions, all the time being told we will not be allowed inside the chapel. There are a few small but familiar-looking plants around; plants well known among the Rasta and a large number of the native population of this country (worldwide, for that matter) for certain of their properties. We have obviously arrived after harvest.
Marley wrote his own and rearranged the music of others to speak out about peace and the absence of it, love and hate, justice and injustice, unity and "sameness." He virtually started a movement in musico-politics. And the music — reggae — became one of the biggest national exports from the country of Jamaica. Making Marley, officially, a national hero.
Twice a year, atop this "holy place," the Marley Foundation throws a party with reggae "singing and ringing" through the hills all night. Those times are Marley's birthday and the anniversary of his death. Mostly local-attended, literally thousands occupy every square inch of ground, level or otherwise, including a steep hill that overlooks the entire facility. On this hill stands a permanent stage upon which twice a year some of Jamaica's best reggae bands play. A pilgrimage during these periods can be a twenty-four-hour (or more) undertaking and may include a long walk.
Between the house and the chapel there is a stone upon which, it is stated, Marley regularly meditated. The stone is painted, as is nearly everything here, in Jamaican tri-colors: red, gold, yellow and green. Upon the stone are written the opening lines of Marley's arrangement of "Talkin' Walkin' Blues": "Cold ground was my bed last night, and a rock was my pillow too." However, remembering the second verse to this Marley arrangement — "I been down on th' rock so long, I seem to wear a permanent groove" —completed, at least for this pilgrim, a vision of insight into Marley's inspiration. I was never able to figure out exactly what the "permanent groove" so worn was, until I saw the "rock."
I converse with the tour guide for several minutes. And slip him about two hundred "J" (Jamaican dollars) for his guidance. During a lull in our conversation the guide goes toward the door of the chapel, then motions me and my party forward. "You may go in to see the tomb, but first you must remove your shoes." Compliantly, some of us go in.
As it should be, it is a moment of reflection about life and reality. This is after all the ultimate destiny of us all. I don't stay long. I leave a "prayer" and a ring upon which is written "Irie." I reflect upon Marley's contribution to world music, then leave and walk back down the hill.
We leave "Nine Mile." I wonder how many tourists make this sojourn. "Enough," I think. Which, I think, is well enough.
Appropriate place for a final rest, and difficult enough to get to. And I've been there!