The picture online, of a serene look-out over the Caribbean Sea from ‘Aunty Nel’s cottage and B&B nestled in the western hills of Jamaica, was honest, but the journey there was another story. Shortly after pick-up from the trans-Island bus station, I learned that the way to Happy Hills was its own via dolorosa! The head of the driver, our hostess’s son, and his daughter, the front-seat passenger, bobbled around as he put the suspension system of the blood-red SUV to the test, every yard of the two-mile stretch. As we ran the gauntlet between the lush tropical foliage, I clutched the seat and kept my eyes riveted on the unbelievable course which my hostess, her family, workers, and guests traversed every day. With surprising calm, he wrangled the vehicle in and out of the limestone potholes. The sedan ahead of us eventually pulled over, waving us on; that driver, apparently, deeming his vehicle no match for this tropical rodeo.
Next day I could not resist an early-morning tryst on the simply furnished porch from which the online photos had been obviously taken. The pictures had not lied but neither had they communicated the whole: sounds of tropical critters awakening in the surrounding forest; gentle breezes shaking water from trees after the night’s shower; fruit, leaves, and branches softly crashing deep in green shadows of foliage. Weathered stone benches at the lookout point warmly invited to sit and savor the commanding view past the riot of trees. Beyond them rose azure bands of the Caribbean Sea to quietly kiss the baby blue horizon. The scene was scarcely interrupted by the occasional cruise-ship making its way across St. Ann’s Bay, laden with tourists headed to Ocho Rios. I concluded that we had the better deal, though I hadn’t yet a clue…
My second ride down the jostling two-mile stretch, with the peerless Petronella Blanken herself, lady of the manor, forced me to ask, “Aunty Nel, was this once a road?” for I had noticed a few segments of what looked like asphalt.
Despite decades living and working among native Jamaicans, Nel’s well-mastered Jamaican patois still failed to conceal her native Dutch accent. She began, “Yeh man!(_? _?__)-dem did come an’ mek a road back when…,” enthusiastically relaying how the road, earlier put in by church friends with public works connections, had been a cow-tick-riddled trail. And as we jostled over the rough pass again I marveled how, like her son, she barely registered the non-existent road surface reclaimed by the frequent run-off and rocks thrown up by the forest’s eternal roots. But the folly was mine. Aunty Nel knew intimately the trials and challenges of the broken road, having lived and practiced nursing among the poor in post-colonial, developing Jamaica but she had her eyes fixed elsewhere on that hill.
Nonchalantly rolling through the ruts and crags, she recounted how she and an environmentalist had braved the difficult track on foot to explore development of the land when it was first leased to her. The aging owners, Ivan and Faith Linton, also lovers of the people of their native land, were eager to serve their spiritual flourishing. Nel had served with the Lintons at InterVarsity discipleship training camps, and had shared her own treasured dream with them. I sensed that Nel was striving to be selective, cramming too much of a unique story between the pothole jolts. I could tell we were far from the beginning; her own story of coming to Jamaica was an intriguing tale worthy of its own telling. But here, mid-point at Happy Hill, was a separate saga illustrative of a hope rooted in the one Hope that makes not ashamed. (Rom 5:5 NKJV) At seventy-plus, Nel was doing some reclaiming of her own before she would consider God’s story of her life complete.
Research in the Legacies of British Slavery databases revealed that Happy Hills (so named by Nel and her team) was once called Laughlands. In 18th century colonial times, it had been deeded to a John Moffatt and his heirs for a little over 2,000 British pounds. A portion of that third of the island’s virgin forest, named St. Ann, was later subdued by the labour of enslaved Africans, and became the Cranbrook Plantation Estates. Some of it was given to cattle-rearing but its primary crops were pimento and sugarcane– for sugar production, but also for the coveted by-product, rum.
How many centuries back did those cattle trails originate which Nel followed centuries later, I wondered?
Where beneath this dense growth lay the plantation ruinous? And where had been ‘housed’ the over three hundred and thirty enslaved persons who once kept that forest restrained and the land supplying the sweet juices, spices and cream others craved overseas? The forest and the river which ran through it, had reclaimed its own and smothered into silence the place of its injustices. And the persistent rains seemed to be forever striving to wash away the memory of the sufferings it had witnessed. A botanical garden and small museum sit on a reclaimed portion of the vast estate not visible from Happy Hills, and a restored water-wheel bears testimony of the dark past. But that backward look was not that of Petronella Blanken, nor of the One to whom she answered. Her hope was built on a different foundation than the broken one of Happy Hill’s history. She had looked and seen something new… coming down out of heaven.
Nel pulled her trusty jalopy over to the side by a gate whose color so matched the foliage I had missed it on the previous rumble by. This was the ‘back gate’ to the beginnings of Nel’s vision— the New Generation (NewGen) Campsite. With a cursory introduction and directions for finding our way around and back, she left us to explore what was a nascent garden-city. The marvel we encountered being carved, woven, shaped and fitted into the forest landscape, beneath its ancient canopy, was awe-inspiring. Artfully located among the foliage were roughly terraced levels situating tent pads for girls and boys, a couple dorm and shower houses, a grand tree-house, a small amphitheater overshadowed by tall bamboo, a team-building ropes and challenge course, a working kitchen, an assembly hall without walls, and here and there intimate nooks, seats, and benches for the fellowship of small groups for prayer, study, and discussion… The dream, fledgling from the outside, bore God-sized finger-prints within!
“Now they desire a better, that is a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them”(Heb. 11:16, NKJV)
I sighed at the irony as we walked back to Nel’s B&B. The Dutch were among the first to chart the maritime courses along which future slavers would ply their dark trade to the islands of the Caribbean and the Americas. A couple centuries later God would pluck up a young Dutch girl and bind her heart to His desire to bring healing and peace to the offspring of the decolonized descendants of Jamaica’s once enslaved population. Tick-infested broken-up trails and repeatedly washed-out roads, among years of hardships and disappointments have not daunted her. As a young nurse, she had fostered two sons of the land abandoned as babies. Now adults, they have made her name their own. But Nel’s sights have been set on the many more of Jamaica’s youth who, lost in paradise, seek only to escape it for the shallow promises of living overseas.
As Happy Hills’ NewGen Camps take continued shape, more young people of this island will experience their lives transformed right there in the heart of the erstwhile Cranbrook Plantation. Once a place of darkness, now reclaimed by creation, it is being remade, because one little woman dares reach for the hope in the promise of all things renewed.
The featured image is courtesy of Nel Blanken and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
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