By Kristina Chatelain
It was in my college French literature class that I first heard a term for a certain feeling that I have wrestled with for a lot of my adult life: mal a l’aise. A simple translation might be something like “uneasy,” but in the context of French existential literature, this term is so much more profound than it’s English traduction.
It’s the inescapable sentiment that follows that final unaswearable “why’ at the end of a regression of fundamental questions about our existence. It’s the feeling that accompanies the realization of the absurd. To quote 20th century French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, it is “this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” It is our human desire to know, yet the world remains indifferent. Not only does this world seem silent and indifferent, it is also crazy.
Thus, Mal a l’aise could be described as not feeling at home in this crazy world.
I can remember the first time I contemplated my existence. I was no more than 10 years old in the back seat of my mother’s car, or maybe my grandmother’s, riding down highway 11, which was more of a country rode that connected our small, one stop light town to the ‘city’ which was actually, by my current standard as a long time city dweller, just a slightly less small town that the one we lived in at the time.
At that age, it was more of a feeling than a well-formulated question. And it wasn’t comfortable one. It was quite the opposite. It was my first mal a l’aise.
I don’t think I was literally asking mom why the sky was blue, but asking or feeling why anything? I had asked why and finally reached the unanswerable why. In fact, it was the blueness of the sky that I remember most vividly that day. There was hardly a cloud. It must have been the perfect day to ask why is the sky blue… and to be unsatisfied by any answer. At my young age, I was recognizing the absurd, or what Camus described as “lucid reason noting its limits.”
Sometimes the mal a l’aise disguised itself as the notion that if I could just move to the right city, I would finally feel at home. Or if I could find the job that I’m super passionate about. But such a fundamental question couldn’t be as simple as a job. Nor could it be about a city.
Majoring in philosophy in college only gave more voice and vocabulary to my feelings that man, if he reflected long enough, could hardly answer anything about his existence and because of his condition, he would always carry a certain mal a l’aise with him through life because “at any street corner, the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”
But this isn’t a story about my mal a l’aise, or not exactly. This is about a special place where I discovered what home might feel like, what ease might feel like. Not home in my career or my environment, but home in my own skin…
We arrived at night relieved to be off the road and on firm ground after a grueling, almost four hour car ride that began in Montego Bay on the northwest coast of the island to Portland on the northeast side. Driving in Jamaica is not for the faint at heart; although most major roads are maintained, more or less, the style and pace of driving can be rather fast and aggressive. And with my husband driving, well let’s digress.
To be honest, I hadn’t researched much about the place, but instead we had chosen based on a recommendation from our mother. Plus, my sister and I are adventurous millennial travelers who create our lives on Instagram; anything with the ‘Huts’ in it must have quelled any objections because photos would be super legit, right?
So there we were unsure of what to expect, making our way up to a rather discrete bamboo gate tucked into the corner of a gravel parking lot, through it, and down a sufficiently lit stone path to what must be the lobby where we could check in. Only this was no ordinary lobby because, first off, it wasn’t an enclosed building, but open-air structure of bamboo and thatch construction, yet sophisticated in its existence right there with the greenery of lush trees and plants and the chorus of natures sounds that let us know that night had fallen in an exotic place – we had arrived at the Great Huts Resort in Port Antonio, Jamaica.
From the moment we stepped through that bamboo gate, we found ourselves surrounded by nature and artwork, a combination quite simple in theory, yet undeniably powerful in experience. If the city life that we are used to is an alienating, chaotic, concrete jungle, then Great Huts Resort was the answer. It was much like stumbling upon a lost civilization in the rain forest, but with modern plumbing, wifi, clean sheets, and a helpful staff. But Great Huts mission goes much deeper than that…
Great Huts mission is to provide a sense of return for people of African decent, placing the beauty and diversity of contemporary Afro-centric art at the forfront of the tourist experience. The presence of Mother Africa is felt
In the lobby, I first noticed the collection of books that touched on various topics from Africana studies to geography as well as a few potent fiction titles: a plus for us vacationing intellectuals who would forgo Red Stripe and Appletons on at least a few nights in exchange for some high grade and deep, thought provoking conversations like why it was the case that certain styles of masks from African and other indigenous cultures are often deemed creepy, grotesque or otherwise alarming…
…Largely for the same reason that ancient African vodun rituals are reduced to images of cloth voodoo dolls and chicken blood sacrifices when depicted on TV and in film. It’s that pervasive notion that any religion or spiritual practice other than christian ones must be evil and scary. While Western people are indeed embracing eastern religious practices like Buddhism and chanting “Namaste” and “Om Shanti” you will rarely hear “Axe!” in any of these circles.
Great Huts provided the space to have such a conversation as it hosts pieces from a few of Jamaica’s most celebrated contemporary artists- Sylvester, Nakazzi Hutchinson, Mazola Wa Mwashighadi, and Gene Pearson- and with the light of the next day, we did discover, in the common area above the lobby known as the Safari deck where we would meet to eat, access wifi, and parler, several oblong shaped masks carved from beige or mocha colored wood into perhaps provocative facial expressions. We were confronted with, or better yet relieved, by the idea that just maybe we could see this masks as spiritual, artistic, thought provoking, and most importantly, worthy. Our ancestral culture no longer had to be weird or lesser…we could feel at home.
Great Huts is a testament to the artistic importance of African, Afro-centric, and African Diaspora art. It’s aesthetics combined with its pastoral ecosystem of wildlife, plants, and earth make it a living museum and modern testimony to ancestral African civilization. And Jamaica—with it’s unique and pivotal role in the origination and propagation of modern black empowerment culture, from the Zionist movement of Marcus Garvey, to the Rastafari and Ital lifestyle that has touched every corner of the globe, to reggae music—is the perfect place to have this experience.
In that same common area where we saw the masks, we met like minded couples from all over: Toronto, Germany, Sweden, and a handful of other Americans. Great Huts attracted not only an international crowd of varying ethinicities, but also couples and families from Jamaica.
We even met three singers, two of whom were Opera singers who owned a music school, and the third was a Kingston native who toured the world with her band. Even though guests were from all over, it was clearly an appreciation for closeness with nature, authenticity in experience, and off the beaten path travel that linked us all together. We were looking for awe and inspiration rather than simply being entertained and authentic connection with our surroundings rather than contrived relationships with shiny facades. Here, there was a sweet nectar of pure existance rather than the sugar coated shell that we had all experienced in everyday life. I had found home. I think this is why people keep coming back– the Toronto couple was on their third stay at Great Huts– We had all found a sense of home.
This is what Great Huts offers- life changing magic of nature, art, and self discovery. The simplicity of earth at your feet and the sky above your head–and sometimes water as in our case; it rained a lot the particular week we were there, but I wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. The sound of intense rain on the bamboo roof of our hut each night while we slept only added to the most intensely restful sleep that I have ever had.
From Great Huts, you could plan an excursion, and there are many in the area- or you could equally stay on the property since, in our experience, it seemed there was a surprise at the end of every path, from rocky ocean views of the Cliffside hiking trails, to the Clifside Infinity Pool with its memorial mural to the human lives lost on sunken slave ships, to the chill vibes of the Royal Lounge with its West African tapestry.
If you wondered around long enough, you would find something that you didn’t see the day before or perhaps the hour before. This was especially the case on our third day when we discovered Africana House. We were making our way along the cliffside hiking trail with trees and glimpses of the property to our left and a cliff with beautiful views of the ocean to our right when the path turned inward taking us deeper into the trees, or so we thought.
When we first came up the path and saw the house, I thought this must be the owner’s residence with its unique architecture, its lush garden, and its circular stone driveway. The house itself reminded me of the surreal silhouettes one would find in Barcelona crossed with an organic Saharan adobe structure —we almost didn’t go in. But the front door was open, and we saw a few pairs of shoes by the door, a sure sign that we were welcome to explore. And by day three, we had learned that this was a place where every detour from the path turns out to be a great decision.
The Africana house, with it grandiose spiral staircase, is an art gallery with Afro centric masks, paintings, and murals. It was at once an art collector’s dream, an artist’s muse, an architect’s envy, and an interior designer’s play place. It also accommodates guests who want to enjoy everything Great Huts offers with more of a luxury feel. I advise thoroughly touring the house and its surrounding land because, again surprising beauty and nature abound!
At Great Huts, I learned the cure for mal a l’aise, particularly as a person of color isn’t tied to a place, rather it is rooted in the kinds of experiences we have, who we connect with, and how we might interpret our own being as well as our history in the larger societal context.
An existentialist once said “in order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occassion” Great Huts was a chance to turn away from the world, particularly city life and to rid ourselves of the limiting notions and categories that colonialism and modern society have set up for not only people of African decent, but for anyone who has ever had the sense of not belonging. For more info on Great Huts, visit www.greathuts.com
All phots by author/photographer Kristina Kellie, Witness The Universe Photography
Pensive and curious, I pause to pose with some of the artwork.
One of the accomodations, or huts, bridges Jewish and African cultures.
Just as a storm was rolling across the ocean, my husband and brother-in-law catch a view of the wild ocean meeting the rocks.