Note to Readers: Our digital camera "died" on this trip, so we needed to use a throw-away camera for this tour. While the photo quality is not as good as our norm, we do feel the photos turned out decent and give perspective to this piece.
On the Trail of Bob Marley:
Celebrating "One Heart, One Love"
Along the Backroads of Jamaica
By Susan J. Young
“Ha, Ha, Haaaa, Haaaaaah” repeatedly cackled our tour guide Yotto -- self-admittedly called "Captain Crazy" -- as he shepherded us through the Bob Marley compound in the mountaintop village of Nine Mile.
Each time Yotto's infectious laugh enveloped our tour group, it elicited a rash of hysterical chuckles from our rag-tag group of cruisers.
Yotto (shown at right*) was everything I expected in a Jamaican tour guide. He was tall, fun loving and casually attired.
And, of course, he sported a wool cap knitted with red, green and yellow yarn (the colors of the Jamaican flag).
Nestled beneath the cap – as revealed later in our tour -- were long dreadlocks just as Marley himself sported.
Yotto was the perfect tour guide for our journey to a place that seemed almost make-believe...
Bob Marley Bus Tour
To reach this spot in Jamaica's heartland, a place where the iconic Reggae artist, songwriter, guitarist and activist Bob Marley was born and is now buried, we recently booked Carnival Cruise Lines’ “Bob Marley Bus Tour” during a Carnival Freedom port call at Ochos Rios.
Met by the tour operator at the frenetic cruise port of Ochos Rios, our group of 20 or so intrepid travelers boarded a colorful "Zion Bus Line" vehicle.
It sported colorful décor and fake coconuts up top. Inside, the ceiling and walls were resplendent with Marley photos and visual collages. Our "Zion Bus Line" vehicle is at left.*
Comparable to a schoolbus in comfort, the festive bus was admittedly a touristy touch. Nevertheless, we liked the look of it. And while the bus was not air-conditioned, no one seemed to mind
Beyond the bus, this tour didn't resemble one of those “plastic” cruise shore excursions so often found in the Caribbean.
There weren’t any beaches, resorts or shopping strips in sight. We didn't encounter anything “Disneyeque.” And alas, there were no jumping dolphins or rum factories in sight.
Even the tourists were few and far between.
If "perfect" is a word for a themed tour, this musical tribute excursion was it.
Over two hours -- as our bus ventured more deeply into the Jamaican interior -- we “oohed” and “aahed” at the lush tropical vegetation and dense forests.
The tour's main purpose was Marley; its secondary benefit was showing cruisers a small slice of the "real Jamaica."
Laundry hung on lines at small cottages. Parents escorted young children down rural roads to a local school. Old men sat on front porches just shooting the breeze.
We gazed on mountain streams, vivid orange blossoms on African tulip trees and cascading hills. We didn't see spectacular mansions (although there were a few nice ones) but rather working class Jamaican villages.
And yes, there was poverty. But this is what life truly delivers. And, it's what Marley addressed in many of his songs.
His music embraced the day-to-day struggles of the 1960s and 1970s Jamaican experience. Marley also captured the plight of the impoverished and oppressed as well as the spirituality of faith and devotion.
From the get-go, our energetic local guide Elon filled the airwaves of our bus with a wealth of knowledge about Marley's music.
He was also quite adept at belting out Marley's tunes accompanied by CD music that boomed over the PA system.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Marley’s songs is superficial. What I know I gleaned from Top 40 radio years ago.
Accompanying me on this family trip was my 82-year-old mother who was even more in the dark.
She knew virtually nothing about Marley or his music. She had heard of him, but barely.
But we were fast learners. It helped that our guide (or “ductor” as the cruise company called him in its shore trip literature) was friendly and fun.
Pretty soon (and I hadn’t even had the rum punch that was offered) we were singing along as the bus headed over hill and dale.
Sing along now...
One Love. One Heart ... Let's get together and feel alright
Hear the children crying (one love)... Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin' give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel alright
Sayin' let's get together and feel all right.... by Bob Marley (shown above right*)
Above all, this tour was a musical immersion experience. If you go, expect and enjoy nonstop Marley music from start to finish while on the bus, and also loud music at times.
Among the 1960s-1980s Marley hits featured were the beloved “One Love, One Heart,” along with I Shot the Sheriff", "No Woman, No Cry", "Three Little Birds", "Exodus", "Could You Be Loved", "Jamming", "Redemption Song" and more.
Clearly, many of Marley's songs had religious overtones. We hoped at times on this tour that a higher power would bless our bus driver.
On the two-hour bus ride to Nine Mile, the road increasingly narrowed to just a slender ribbon. It also became increasingly winding as the bus motored higher into the hinterlands.
If Green Acres was in the country, this was definitely the height of God’s Country.
Blind spots and sharp curves were everywhere.
Our driver repeatedly "laid on the horn" for three and four seconds at a time as the bus traversed difficult curves.
At times, the earth broke away from the road at an alarmingly sharp grade. Peering out my window, I could look straight down.
Guardrails were few and far between.
Thankfully, though, our driver maneuvered the bus safely into the hills. Eventually our bus carried us to an altitude of more than 3,600 feet.
Tier after tier of blue and green hued mountains lapped each other in multiple levels from the foreground to the horizon. The scenery was stunning, the air clear and fresh.
Nine Mile and the Compound
Arriving at Nine Mill in rural St. Anne’s parish in early afternoon – after listening and singing along for hours to Marley’s music – felt akin to a pilgrimage.
One young traveler (clearly just 18 and not even born in Marley's lifetime) was in awe. Wearing a Marley tee-shirt, he beamed when I complemented him on the shirt.
He'd bought it before coming to Jamaica. His extended Latin American family (parents, sisters and friends) also knew all the words to all the Marley songs.
As the wooden gates of the Marley compound (shown at right*) opened for our bus, we entered a cocooned environment. Marley family members still reside here at times.
The gates clearly protect the Marley sites, but they also keep those selling “the weed” (as I call it) at bay.
But alas, small holes through the fence opened as we exited the bus in the parking lot.
As we peered curiously at the holes, long sticks that held cigarettes (and not run-of-the-mill ones) -- were pushed through for us to view.
Only the mouth or eye of the vendor was visible through the small hole. Polite voices asked: “You wanna buy?”
I’m decidedly anti-drug so we just ignored the offer. But I chuckled a bit at the entrepreneurial ingeniousness present in this small village.
That said, it’s best to pause here and discuss…. As with many other artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Marley imbibed in smoking “the weed” (which we must stress that neither this publication, the cruise line nor the tour operator condone that… period).
Just keep in mind, during the free-spirited 1960s and 1970s, life was different in many places in the world. In this spot, that perspective remains unchanged.
In addition, like many Jamaicans of African descent, Marley also was a staunch follower of the Rashajani faith.
This religion sees the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (shown at left*) as a god and believes smoking is an accepted religious trapping.
So if you go on this tour, you will hear discussions about these topics.
In and around the compound in Nine Mile, you’ll also likely be approached by vendors seeking interested buyers. As the tour company told us repeatedly on the bus PA system: “That’s not part of this tour.”
During our brief “exposure” to this situation, I must emphasize we did nothing illegal nor did we feel harassed to do so. Frankly, the few vendors we encountered at Nine Mile were far less aggressive than most others I’ve encountered elsewhere in the world.
So just say “no thanks” and enjoy your tour. If you can’t handle that, our advice is simply don’t book this tour. Enough said...
Birth, Life and Death
The Carnival literature describes this tour as “easy.” Overall, given the bus ride, much of it was.
At the Marley compound, however, visitors must walk up at least one flight of stairs; navigate several smaller groupings of steps; and walk uphill on a steep grade to reach the gravesite. There is no elevator.
My mother uses a transport chair; she can walk but not far and she can’t climb.
When she eyed the grade and said, I’ll just wait down here, the rest of you go on,” the staff at the Marley compound absolutely wouldn’t hear of it.
“We do this all the time,” one staffer told her with a smile. He and several others either carried her (seated in the wheelchair) up the flight of stairs, or pushed it up or down the grade.
It was absolutely exemplary service – the kind not to be found at many U.S. museums or attractions.
In addition, the staff made her feel a part of the group, not someone who stood out from it. See photo at right.*
Our tour group was a mix of young and old; singles, couples and families; and people from multiple nations.
Yet, everyone had the "One Heart, One Love" spirit and got along just fine ....
... but then, I guess that's what happens when you just "feel alright."
As part of the Marley compound visit, a Reggae musician played as Yotto danced and led our group in singing a few Marley standards.
Then we climbed the uphill grade to the small structure where Robert Nesta Marley was born on Feb. 6, 1945.
Reportedly a Jamaican passport official swapped his first and middle name; originally it was Nesta Robert Marley.
Marley was the son of a white military officer of British descent and a black Jamaican teenager.
While the two married before Marley’s birth, Marley never really knew his father, who died when the budding musician was 10.
Gazing around this spot, I felt a bit like I was entering the “Graceland of Reggae,” given the revered way that the guide and the true Marley fans on our tour approached the entry.
That said, the digs were austere and quite small – nothing grandiose like Elvis' palace in Memphis.
You can see the entry above.*
Before entering, though, we stopped briefly at a memorial garden, replendent with foliage and the aroma of roses.
A Jamaican flag with Marley's photo is positioned over a small grassy area. Here the words "Bob" and "Lives" are spelled out in colored rocks. (see photo at right*)
Adjacent to this grassy area is a moderately sized open area; it's the site for Marley events and festivals.
The biggest annual festival is in February -- Marley’s birthday month.
Marley's Modest Bedroom
This tour also gave participants a chance to step briefly into the bedroom where Bob Marley slept as a child. Guests are asked to remove their shoes as a sign of respect.
The exterior of the bedroom is decorated with red, green and yellow paintings, spelling out "BOB." See photo at left.*
Inside, the bedroom contains a single bed and other artifacts. See photo below.*
Tour guests each enter the bedroom, take a photo and then remain shoeless to visit adjacent areas.
Behind the bedroom is an outdoor kitchen, as well as some colorfully painted rocks where Marley reportedly meditated and wrote music.
At this site, Yotto removed his knit cap to reveal his long dreadlocks. (see photo at left*)
And to give the effect of Marley "reflecting on life" at the spot, he laid down as Marley might have. See photo below*
Visiting The Crypt
Then it's on to the mausoleum - Marley's final resting spot. Flickering candles, an image of Emperor Haile Selassie, and small tokens and personal remembrances adorn the base of the crypt.
Some devotees in our group left burning candles as a tribute.
The crypt fills much of the mausoleum; tour guests may touch it and walk around it.
The aroma in the air is decidedly 60s (if you get my drift). After this brief visit, the compound tour is essentially over, with visitors given just a brief time for a break.
Incidentally, the guides make a point of telling you they aren’t allow to imbibe on the job.
Their eyes tell you that’s true (unlike what we observed with some of the vendors outside) but the guides including Yotto have the Jamaican “hey mon schtick" down perfectly.
So before leaving us, Yotto gives us another "Ha, Ha, haaaa, Haaah" -- almost wheezing as he grins.
I couldn’t resist tipping more than I had planned to. But in this case, the experience was worth it.
After briefly stopping at the compound's Bob Marley gift shop (at right*), it was time for our journey back to Ochos Rios.
On the return trip, additional Bob Marley songs blasted from the bus PA system. Elon also played songs written or sung by other Reggae artists or Marley's children (he had 13 in all and several are accomplished singers or musicians); some of this music was Reggae in nature, but much of it was rap-like.
The return trip also delivered more stunning scenery. (see photo at left*).
About halfway back to the port, we stopped for a Caribbean jerk lunch at the same local joint where we’d had the rest stop in the morning.
We chowed down on jerk chicken and pork (which I felt was not the best quality and quite fatty), rice and beans and a fritter-like bread stick that I adored.
Served in "help yourself fashion," the lunch was okay, but not terrific. That said, there may have been few other choices available to the tour operator at this rural point along the roadway. The entry to the dining spot is shown at left.*
After lunch, the driver took a bit different route back to the port.
Instead of retracing our route through the Fern Forest, we headed for Higgins Town and St. Anne's Bay.
Throughout our time on the bus as well as at the compound, we learned gleanings about Marley’s life and legacy. Here are a few highlights...
Marley left Nine Mile at 14 to pursue his dream of a music career. In Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, he became a student and follower of Joe Higgs, a devout Rastafarian. He also cut his first record, Judge Not, in 1962.
After forming multiple musical groups, he settled into a rhythm with the Wailers and recorded “I’m Still Waiting,” “Simmer Down,” “Dancing Shoes,” “Jerk in Time” and “What Am I To Do,” among others.
He married Rita Anderson of the Soulettes (and later the I-Threes). Not yet a musical superstar, Marley even worked a stint in a Newark, DE, factory, in the city where his mother lived.
Upon returning to Jamaica, Marley re-formed the Wailers and he began devoting his life to the Rastafari faith. His music matured. His musical acceptance, and in tandem, his fortunes grew.
In 1973, he released Catch a Fire, the Wailers first album to be sold outside Jamaica.
The follow-up album, Burnin' included the song, "I Shot the Sheriff,” also a 1974 Eric Clapton hit.
The Wailers expanded and changed, eventually incorporating the I-Threes. In 1975, the group released the 1975 Natty Dread, which scored Marley his first U.K. Top 40 hit with "No Woman, No Cry."
Marley subsequently played to sold-out shows at London’s Lyceum, the forum for a live album.
And, with the release of 1976's Rastaman Vibration, a U.S. Top 10 hit, Marley’s music had found its niche.
It was pop, mainstream, yet clearly different. (Images of Marley and his musical legacy are depicted at left on the ceiling of our tour bus*)
But as Marley’s fame grew outside Jamaica, at home the nation hung on every word he uttered. His perception as a mystical figure and prophet led to a 1976 assassination attempt; that forced him to leave Jamaica for more than a year.
Marley was magical when performing live in concert -- such as at the Babylon by Bus concert, which preceded the release of 1979's "Survival."
Marley’s biggest year was 1980; he did a concert gig in the newly liberated Zimbabwe and had a U.S. tour on tap.
But while jogging in New York's Central Park, though, he collapsed. It was discovered that cancer – reportedly from an untreated soccer injury that had turned into melanoma – had spread to his brain, lungs, and liver.
Uprising was the final album released in his lifetime. The 36-year-old Marley died on May 11, 1981 in a Miami hospital.
His body was brought home to Nine Mile for burial.
Incidentally, Marley’s posthumous compilation album entitled "Legend" was released in 1984. Today, it remains the top selling reggae album of all time with more than 12 million copies sold.
Marley remains enormously popular throughout over the world, particularly in Africa. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
In addition, Time magazine chose Bob Marley & The Wailers' "Exodus" as the greatest album of the 20th century.
The Road Home
Heading back to our ship, we reflected with fondness on our rewarding day of scenic beauty, Jamaican lifestyle, and Bob Marley music.
We also smiled when thinking of the quirky and friendly characters we met along the way.
As the tour ended at the Ochos Rios pier (see photo above*), we remarked that this shore trip was clearly a cut above the norm.
If travel is a learning experience, this tour carried many riches -- not the least of which is that I'll remember Yotto's "Ha, ha, haaaa, haaah" for as long as I live.
In addition, I'll always feel that the legacy of Bob Marley lives on, thanks to that tour. If we weren't fans before we went, we are at least now more knowledgeable about the man and his music.
I'm humming the tunes as I write this story. So let's get together and feel alright....
For More Information
Carnival Cruise Lines: www.carnival.com
For Bob Marley's life story and musical history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Marley
The Bob Marley Foundation: (for information about the tour and home): www.bobmarleyfoundation.org.
One of several Web sites with Bob Marley song lyrics: http://www.metrolyrics.com/bob-marley-lyrics.html
*Most photos above are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young. Others reprinted are in the public domain and available via Wikipedia or the U.S. Library of Congress