Disclaimer: This post is unofficial and unaffiliated with the Calabash Literary Festival, and not endorsed by the producers either. Just my own opinions and reflections.
Who else loves literature? If you raised your hand, you’ll probably agree with me that book fests are the new music fests. Let’s face it: comfortable seats and soft spoken word beats standing for hours having your ears screamed off any day.
After about a dozen years of impatience and envy (bruk pocket and bad mind) I finally managed to attend the Calabash Literary Festival, the best little festival in the best little village on the best little island in the world.
A brief introduction
Calabash (as it is affectionately known) was started in 2001 by Jamaican founders Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell. After being staged annually for a decade, Calabash now draws crowds to Treasure Beach every other year. And the wait makes it even sweeter.
At first look, Treasure Beach is a happy sleepy little town on Jamaica’s south coast. Driving down from Montego Bay my first sight as I rounded a corner and began the downhill drive was a gorgeous green plain that melded right into the Caribbean sea, dotted with houses and tiny lakes. It was breathtaking.
Treasure Beach is friendly to the pedestrian and avid step-counter. It’s much easier to walk around than it is to drive and the scenery is so pretty you’ll constantly be stopping to snap pictures. One weird element – at least weird in my north coast opinion – is that the sand is actually a dark colour, nothing like the white sand beaches I’m used to. But it still has a rustic beauty to it.
Places to stay are hard to come by in Treasure Beach around the time of Calabash. Most hotels are fully booked out months in advance but we luckily got in touch with an AirBnB host and managed to secure a hut for the weekend. Yes, a hut. A ‘comfortable hut with options’ as the listing went, and it was pretty comfortable. Once we got past the outdoor shower (cold!) and strange scratching noise in the thatch roof at nights (despite my worst fears, we did not get eaten).
For a Jamaican village, Treasure Beach has a wide variety of meal options. Tourism does that to a place I think. Aside from Calabash itself which sold breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are a number of restaurants along the village road. We tried unsuccessfully to eat out at a different place every night – Jack Sprat kept drawing us back in – and for the most part the food was pretty good. I was amused that everyone served pizza! And being Jamaica naturally jerk chicken was the most common topping.
For breakfast there was only one option: Smurf’s Cafe. I still have mouthwatering daydreams about this eatery, which is right behind a bar of the same name. They serve home brewed coffee and a delectable selection of local and continental dishes. I can’t sing their praises enough. Their reputation speaks for itself though, because every single morning of Calabash there was a large crowd of people waiting for tables to free up.
Walking into the Calabash venue you will pass stalls featuring a variety of entrepreneurs and artisans. Even though Calabash boasts no admission fee, you should walk with plenty plenty pocket money to spend on the jewelry, accessories, clothing, natural products and more that are all for sale on site.
And the books! Of course a book festival comes equipped with its very own bookstore, and the Kingston Bookshop came prepared with titles from all the speakers and then some. One complaint – the books were so expensive. It would have been a nice gesture to offer a festival discount so that those with less well-lined pockets could still buy a book and get it signed by their favourite writer.
Saving the best for last it seems. Calabash prepared such a refreshing blend of creative voices: novelists, short story authors, poets, writers who defy genre, artistes and DJs came together in a delicious pepperpot soup that I imagine left the audience feeling satisfied and sated.
Confession: I didn’t attend every single event. I was waist-deep in exam preparation that weekend, and I really love sleeping in. But the beauty of Calabash is its buffet style presentation. You can pick, choose and refuse events and sections without feeling like you’re missing out, especially since hashtags keep you in the loop from a distance with Twitter. It’s casual, a la carte and tech-friendly so it fits right in with the ethos of today’s evolving interconnected world.
One complaint: directions on the festival grounds would have been super helpful. The first night I ended up waiting in front of the main stage when the festival was going on at the adjacent property. Long time attendees may be in the know, but us newbies can get lost pretty easily.
Am I hooked on the Calabash bug and totally enamored of Treasure Beach? Guilty as charged. The festival delivered, and was every bit as #LitUp as the producers promised. The Open Mic sections sparked my muse and now I’m excited to start writing again. Next time I’ll be up on that stage too.
Here’s to Calabash 2020, I can’t wait!