Story by Samantha Nicholas
Photos by Dan Skye
T.J. stopped on the edge of the dense foliage, beeped the horn twice, and hollered something out. A distant voice replied, equally unintelligible. T.J. was announcing our arrival.
It felt good not to be moving. T.J. was showing off his driving skills on the Jamaican back roads. His vehicle was the customary dinky minivan—lightweight, shaky and capable of missile-like speed—basically, a fuel-injected refrigerator with windows. Most frightening were the teeny-weeny Tonka Toy tires. I hid my fear of momentary incineration in twisted metal, because T.J. was doing me a favor. His initials don’t stand for anything. He took his name from T.J. Hooker, the TV cop played by William Shatner. The nickname comes from some unspecified work T.J. once performed using a hook, but I chose not explore this with him. I knew someone in Jamaica who knew him and he knew where the secret ganja fields were—or maybe T.J. had a hand in their operation, it wasn’t clear.
I jumped out of the minivan into the buttery Caribbean heat. The rural air was sweet but unbelievably heavy, while the sky was thickening. The seasonal showers of late August can roll through at any time, sometimes accompanied by lurid lightning strikes. A few miles away, long, arcing sheets of rain swept the hills. The sun, which was bright where we stood, lit up the slate-gray wall of clouds, creating a stark contrast against the tropical greenery. It would be raining here soon. Sometimes it lasts a few minutes, at others it’s torrential—one more good reason to be free of T.J.’s lethal vehicle.
We ducked into a dense canopy and began walking the slippery trail into the hills. My inner voice spoke the same thought over and over—it’s hot, it’s hot, it’s hot! The “gentle trade winds” relentlessly hyped by the Caribbean tourism industry were absent this far inland. I dripped along behind T.J.
We stepped out of the foliage into a broad field and walked in the direction of a shack partially hidden in high grass. It was the security post for the field of ganja we were going to visit. About a hundred yards off, a barefoot, smiling, shirtless dude wearing ragged fatigue pants stepped into view. His was the voice that had answered T.J.’s initial shout-out. He gave T.J. a big wave with his machete. They launched into a loud, staccato patois from yards away from each other as we crossed the field. Though it was indecipherable, the conversation was about me. But nothing was awry.
“He lives out here all da time, mon, watchin’ over the ganja,” T.J. explained. “He just checkin’ on you—makin’ sure you don’t take no photographs of da hillsides, mon. People recognize da way da countryside look. We don’t want no police recognizing our location, mon.”
By the time we reached the shack, the security guard had returned to his quiet life and was lounging in his hammock, lazily holding the machete. T.J. slapped his hand as we passed. We trudged upward along a curtain of saplings, then descended through a gully. On the slope up, I saw the first line of plants rimming the edge of the field. When I finally pulled myself up from the brush to field level, I realized I was on one side of a hillside, and the ganja spread to the top and down the other side.
“Jesus!” I gasped. “This is the biggest field I’ve ever seen!”
HIGH COUNTRY [con't]
“Yah, mon,” T.J. replied. “You’re lucky, because tomorrow they cuttin’ it down.”
T.J. told me it was all Purple Star—big, healthy sativas. I calculated that the hilltop crop probably constituted 40 acres, but T.J. assured me of other local fields nearly three times as large. But he also admitted that fields this expansive are rare. Most crops are considerably smaller, and those brave enough to seek extra income in this poor economy must resort to the same guerrilla tactics that American outdoor growers engage in, planting small gardens inconspicuously in unwelcome terrain—sites near swampland or much further into the bush. Just the same, Jamaica’s soil and climate can yield three pot crops a year.
Ganja’s popularity took root in the 1930s with the rise of Rastafarianism, and reached mythical proportions during the reign of Bob Marley. The herb probably came with the arrival of indentured servants from India in 1845. The words “ganja,” “chillum,” and “kali” are all derived from the Indian language. Some maintain that the Arawaks, Jamaica’s original inhabitants, were smoking before the arrival of Columbus but in truth, cannabis is not indigenous to the West Indies.
Today, Jamaica is often cited as one of the smokingest nations in the world, with estimates that up to two-thirds of the population are occasional users. But cannabis production is down considerably from the ’70s, when the island fed about 20 percent of the world’s consumption. At that time, the bauxite industry had displaced thousands from rural areas and increased the burden of unemployment. The bauxite multinationals ate up the already short supply of land on the island and bought out the plots of many small farmers. Ganja was a means of survival for local farmers, a high-yield cash crop second only to bauxite as a source of revenue. But the War on Drugs is clawing away at cannabis here, too. US drug agents have been burning fields for nearly two decades. According to the US State Department, 705 tons of ganja were grown in 1991. In 1997, the yield had been reduced to 235 tons.
Obviously, a lone sentry with a machete is no match for an army of Drug Warriors, but he will stop poachers. As we threaded our way back down out of the hills, T.J shouted out. No answer came back. We reached the shack and he looked around. Then he shouted out again.
T.J. said we’d hang out for a spell. A few minutes passed and the guard returned, but in an animated state, waving the big blade for emphasis. I stepped back a couple of feet. He and T.J. went back and forth about whatever had transpired.
When we finally departed, T.J. explained that intruders had been near, and the guard had slipped into the brush to await their arrival. T.J.’s loud bellow had caused them to turn tail. “Lucky for dem!” he laughed.
We returned to the minivan. T.J. pulled out a huge chunk of weed, rolled it into a thick cone, and lit it. He exhaled, and smoke appeared to emanate from everywhere—his mouth, his nose, even his ears. He got back behind the wheel, and smoke soon filled the minivan. Off we went at a murderous clip.
The rain blew in and was soon slamming against the pavement. The big cone burned. A few miles up the road, T.J. slowed. A roadblock up ahead was stopping cars, a common occurrence in these parts. Supposedly, its purpose was to stem the flow of ganja out of the hills, but T.J. said what the cops really wanted was a payoff to let it move.
T.J. lowered the massive spliff below window level and pulled up to the cops with a big wave. They seemed to know him, and waved back. He kept the minivan in drive and had a quick conversation. Then he pulled away and began singing the same two words over and over: “Harvest time, harvest time, harvest time.”