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The journey of Ahhh... Ras Natango Gallery and Garden

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large Western Bureau cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, May 18, 2014    

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MONTEGO BAY, St James -- Thirty years ago when Ian Williams, popularly known as Ras Natango, and his wife Tamika, decided to sell their lush property in Fairy Hill, Portland, and relocate in the resort city of Montego Bay, they had no idea that today their present home would become one of the better known attractions on the island.

The move from the eastern parish back then was strategic, as Ian, a self-taught painter, wanted a permanent hub to showcase his work in what was then believed to be one of the fastest growing resort areas on the island.

Prior to their relocation to the salubrious hills of Camrose in St James, which lies 2000 feet above sea level, Ian, a graduate of St George's College in Kingston, had been commuting on public transportation almost on a daily basis from Portland to Montego Bay to sell his paintings.

"We didn't have a car so he was taking transportation back and forth from Fairy Hill to Port Antonio, Port Antonio to Buff Bay; Buff Bay to Annotto Bay; Annotto Bay to Ocho Rios; Ocho Rios to Montego Bay, so most of the money that he would make from selling his paintings to cruise ship passengers went back into transportation, so he was not making a lot of money. As a result of this, we sold the property in Portland and along with our son, Ayale, we went to live in Montego Bay," Tamika told the Jamaica Observer.

It took the couple sometime, however, to find a permanent home.

Tamika recalled that within a two-year span, they had occupied four different houses in Montego Bay.

"Ian thought that we could not raise our son like this, moving all over the place, so he decided to start looking for land to buy, even though we did not have any money because we had been living off the money from the piece of property we sold in Portland for two years -- paying rent, buying food... and Ian was only painting 'T' shirts at that time, because we found out that the tourism market was harder to break into than we thought," she explained.

She said that as her husband began his "hunt for land without having even a penny," a family friend from the United States who was visiting the island decided to give him J$5,000 to drive him around because he was too scared to drive himself.

Buoyed by the generosity of the friend, Ian's hunt for land intensified.

His search ended in Camrose, a hilly section of St James, on the outskirts of Montego Bay, after Ian paid down $3,000 on a piece of "woodland consisting of rocks and boulders, and very little soil"- without the knowledge of his charming wife.

Tamika was livid when her husband told her about the purchase.

She just could not fathom how her husband could buy a piece of property without first consulting her.

"I decided that I was going to hate the land because he was not supposed to buy it without consulting me, so I was planning to go to the lady whom he paid the money to, and take it (the downpayment) back, but anyway he explained that he only paid the woman the money to take it off the market," she said, adding that he later asked her to accompany him to look at the place.

She agreed.

"So when we were going there the road was riddled with potholes. What would easily be a five-minute journey took us about 45 minutes. When we reached there the place was a jungle, no neighbours. The land was on a hillside; it had nothing but stones, even a goat would have problems on it," Tamika shared.

She admitted, however, that she was impressed with the panoramic view of the city of Montego Bay and sections of Trelawny that "the piece of jungle offered".

In short order, Ian convinced her that they could make the property their home.

Months later, the land was fully paid for, and the couple decided to undertake the Herculean task of clearing it, despite much chatter and laughter amongst persons, who argued that the Williamses were swindled out of their money, because nothing could be done on the property.

Several years later, the much- improved property, now called Ahhh... Ras Natango Gallery and Garden, has evolved into an environmentalist's paradise, encompassing a botanical garden, themed fantasy gardens, a bird sanctuary, a gift shop and an art gallery, which showcases the works of Ian, his son, Ayale, and local artist, Cney.

Ian's paintings are found in private collections in 17 countries around the world, according to Tamika.

Here in Jamaica, they can also be seen at the Half Moon Hotel, Hotels RIU in Negril and Ocho Rios, as well as at several homes and other businesses across the island.

"Several international visitors have come to our property. It is somewhere different ... a place where your mind can relax and just meditate, inhale the fresh air, and just be at one with nature and its surroundings," said Tamika, adding that the business is approved by the Jamaica Tourist Board.

She added that Ahhh ... Ras Natango Gallery and Garden is an excellent location for field trips for schools, as students can have an innovative learning experience using nature and art.

Two years ago, US resident Mark Tucci and his wife Frances bought into the dream of Ian and his wife and decided to inject well-needed capital into the business.

The investment by the Tuccis has resulted in the purchase of a Toyota Noah minibus valued at $1.7 million, construction of a driveway leading to the property from the main road, building of a retaining wall, and installation of lights in the garden.

"For many years we have been negotiating for tour operators to transport tourists to the attraction, but these requests have for the most part been met with rejection due to the deplorable state of the road to the area. Now we will operate the bus as a free shuttle for guests to the attraction, instead of relying on others for transportation, and it will also act as an aggressive marketing tool for us," an elated Tamika told the Jamaica Observer then.

The capital injection has caused a wave of euphoria and optimism to flood the small Camrose community.

Residents have so far embarked on a beautification project in anticipation of more tourist arrivals to the attraction.

According to Tamika, the business is having a positive impact on the community, which has roughly 600 residents.

"The young people were without hope. Now they have hope. They take pride in themselves," she stressed.

"Now they see a busload of tourists coming so they now realise that things are happening."

She said that the residents are being encouraged to sell the business their fruits, ground provisions and other items.

"Our business is really a community business," she emphasised.

Ahhh... Natango Gallery and Garden now employs 12 persons from the community, but the Williamses believe that within the next few years more than 50 will be directly employed "not just here but in and around the community".

"Those 50 would encompass tour guides, security for those guests who want to go into the community, as well as from the transformation of the small square into an attraction," she argued.

Ian also remains confident that the business will continue to assist area residents.

"Our business has actually changed a lot of the perception about what the community was like before, it is now more peaceful, people seem to have more hope that there is a future for them because they know that as our business expands it will have a lot of spin-offs for them," he stated.

Beverly Thompson, a resident of the community, said in a previous interview with the Observer that she was happy with the development in the community, "as the Williamses have always had the district at heart".

She added that the renewed community interest and pride being exhibited by residents have brought on a feeling of hope for the district.

Meanwhile, in a bid to promote the gallery and garden, the Williamses earlier this year were among the 1,600 exhibitors and buyers in attendance at the Miami Cruise Convention, in Florida.

There they displayed a number of their art and craft pieces.

"The experience was awesome and will prove to be very beneficial," said Tamika.

"Right now we are in dialogue with two different ships to start bringing guests here. We are hoping to get about 30 people at a time at least two days per week," she said, adding that a larger amount would cause the property to lose its essence.

Over the last three years, Ahhh... Natango Gallery and Garden has snagged many local awards, and has been recognised by several international agencies.

In 2012, for example, the attraction was awarded the prestigious Sam Sharpe award for community development through tourism. The following year it copped a certificate of excellence award from Trip Advisor. That same year it was nominated by AMCHAM in the category for culture and was named as the number one place to shop in Jamaica, on the USA Today Travel Magazine 10 Best List of Places to Shop in Jamaica.

The attraction was also featured last year in Delta Sky Magazine, and more recently the attraction won the top award in the medium-sized garden category at the St James Horticultural Show.

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