June 1988, my arrival at Norman Manley; wild taxi ride through Kingston and dealing with the Jamaican Railray Corporation Station Master was behind me and I was now on my way from Kingston to Montego Bay. I wasn’t taking the complete six hour one way trip today, for a full fare of about $4.00 US, as I was stopping at Maggotty and traveling into the unknown….The Cockpit Country! The train was violently pitching from side to side as higglers were hawking their wares from car to car hardly noticing the movements that would knock a novice off their feet. The shouts of “Bammy, fresh Bammy!” came from a large lady with a wash tub full of the delicious treat balanced firmly on her head, mixed with others shouting, “Box Juice!”, “Peanuts!” and “Red Stripe!” as they were competing for the passengers business. I was sitting on the hard bench seat looking out the half-open, hand-smeared window absently thinking about todays final destination: Accompong- Home of the Maroons. I decided to thumb through my well-worn travel book to read up on the area. Right there, on page 120, next to a picture of Colonel Martin Luther Wright in a red military uniform were the words that sent me here in the first place. “You can not visit Accompong or the surrounding Cockpit Country without the permission of the Colonel of the Maroons!” I closed the book and mused, “Well, Colonel Wright, I will be seeing you soon!”
About two hours into the trip, we were just chugging out of the Porus Station and starting to ascend the winding track through the Santa Cruz Mountains. I stopped the conductor on his journey through the car and asked, “How much longer to Maggotty?”. He patiently smiled and said, “Soon Come!”. “Excuse me”, I continued, “How did Maggotty get its name?”. “Well, my friend”, he continued as he sat down on the hard bench across from me with the twinkle of a storyteller in his eye, “Once there was a likkle pickney who used to board the train at that stop and, when the conductor asked her for her ticket, she would respond, “Ma Got Ticky!” I screwed up my face and shook my head in disbelief as the car became silent for a few seconds then nearby passengers began to laugh and snicker at the “possible”, yet “impausable” explanation which was cleverly delivered. The conductor stood up and looked out the open door up towards the engine and shouted, “Maggotty! Next stop, Maggotty!”. I grabbed my backpack and exited when the train pulled into the Maggotty Station. “Have a Irie trip, mon!” I heard from behind me as I turned to see the conductor wave and smile. I returned his wave and smiled, “Yes this ‘Irie’ trip was just beginning!” At the station a local resident directed me to the Sweet Bakery in town where they would help arrange my transport into the Cockpit Country. It was becoming very apparent that few travelers ventured into this area as most everyone stopped what they were doing and stared inquisitively as I passed.
While crossing the bridge over the Black River, I noticed the beautiful recreation park next to the river. It was called Apple Valley Park. A 550 acre paradise with six swimming pools, two lakes, several waterfalls and some of the friendliest people I have ever met. The Lees, who own the Sweet Bakery, also own the park. They are my closest friends to this day. They directed one of the bakery workers, Blacka, to help me secure a transport to Accompong. More stares ensued as Blacka and I made our way to the transport area in downtown Maggotty. Maggotty, once a “BoomTown” during the heyday of Bauxite mining, has been reduced to a sleepy town of about a quarter of its original size and I think all of her residents were on the street watching this strange traveler who was in their midst. A feeling of dread was welling up inside but my constant smiling and saying, “Hello!” quickly illicited warm greetings in return. The sun was very hot and the weather humid as I stood and waited for the transport when a storekeeper invited me into the store to sit and wait. When inside, she produced a tall glass of ice water and rejected every offer as payment for her generosity. I heard a strange sound approaching from up the road. It was a 1953 GMC 9-passenger Panel Truck painted red on top, white around the middle and blue on the bottom. I stared in amazement as 14 adults and school children emerged as if from a clown’s car at the circus. I was given the honored “ShotGun” seat and 11 other riders piled into the seats behind me. Bob Marley was blasting on the radio and the constant Patois chatter from behind made the 20 mile trip over winding mountain roads seem surreal.
Accompong, a sleepy little town of about 200 residents seemed a contradiction in time. There were modern stores and dwellings along side buildings over 100 years old. Rastafarians in tattered clothes walking side by side with residents in coats and ties. One thing not a contradiction was the warmth, respect and “Joy of Life” that was prevalent throughout the village. These current day Maroons are the direct decendants of the first freed slaves in the Western Hemisphere having signed a Peace Treaty in 1739 with England obtaining freedom after three long and exhausting Maroon Wars. Their forefathers were originally enslaved by the Spanish landowners that brought them to Jamaica from the Coromantee and Ashanti tribes in Africa. Their fierceness in battle is noted in their name: Maroon (Spanish: from “Cimarron” meaning “wild” or “fierce”). As I exited the transport, a young, neatly dressed youth asked me to accompany him to see the Colonel. As we walked towards the Colonel’s Office a large crowd of residents, mostly children, began to follow at a respectful distance while giggling and chattering excitedly in a Patois that I had not heard before on my trips. I began to think that this was all a huge mistake as I started to anxiously look around for the transport that would take me back to Maggotty when permission would certainly be denied to enter this region. Upon entering the Colonel’s Office, I noticed an elderly gentleman behind a desk dressed in a white shirt and tie. I recognized him from Page 120, without the red military uniform, and he seemed friendlier and more accessible dressed this way. There were three rows of six metal folding chairs each facing the desk whose back row was occupied by three heavy-set ladies dressed in their Sunday finest fanning themselves absently while intently watching the proceedings. I was directed to take a seat directly across from the Colonel, Martin Luther Wright. The Office of Colonel of the Maroons was, at this time, an elected-for-life position. The Maroons decided to change this practice during the late 80’s and the Colonel is now elected for a few years at a time until new elections are called. Colonel Wright is now in his 90’s and still very active in Maroon Politics. Many Maroons live to be over 100 years old due to their healthy diet, genes and active lifestyle. The Colonel began our visit with a history lesson. I listened intently with a sense of awe and reverence. I was amazed at his extensive knowledge of history, geography and world affairs. We chatted for about an hour when Colonel Wright opened the Official Visitors Log and invited me to sign for permission to enter Accompong and the surrounding cockpit Country. He then requested my Passport where he entered the embossed imprint of the Official Seal of the Accompong Maroons and affixed his signature. While he was stamping my Passport, I turned back the twenty or so pages in the log showing names and comments of the 200 (or so) visitors who preceded me into this magical place since the early 1950’s. There were names of returning Maroons who came from “A foreign”, dignitaries from various nations around the world and a few Jamaican Citizens who visited out of curiosity. Most of the dates entered where arount January 6th during the yearly Maroon Celebration. Colonel Wright and the ladies rose to signify the end of my official greeting and Colonel Wright shook my hand vigorously while telling the youth who brough me there that I was free to stay in Accompong as long as I desired and to assist me in anyway I asked. I bowed slightly, showing my respect, and officially entered the village. That young man is my best friend today! During that visit, I was invited to “N’Yam” (eat) with a family, go to Christian Church, hike to the Peace Cave (where the Peace Treaty ending the Maroon Wars was signed) and to stay overnight in the community. I did and still do once or twice a year to this day! Monday morning I started my walk to the transport area for my trip back to Maggotty and, eventually, home. From all over the community came shouts of “Goodbye!”, “God Bless!” and “JAH be with you!” and warm smiles and waves from my new found friends. The three-hour train trip to Montego Bay and then on to my flight, gave me ample time to reflect on this experience. How wonderful these stangers had treated me expecting only “Respect” in return! Whenever I feel down or overwhelmed by my day to day life, I close my eyes and remember………..ACCOMPONG!
Respect Bill Evans