On Treasure Beach, ceremonies of hospitality and hallucinogens draw a path to the self

For Document’s Spring/Summer 2023 issue, literary savant Ira Silverberg looks back on psychologically-formative experiences along Jamaica’s coast

There are about two touristic things to do in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. They both involve trips on the water in long wooden skiffs. One is traveling to the sea to the Pelican Bar, a simple cinder block structure serving Red Stripes as the pushy birds dive-bomb for your bag of chips. The other is meandering up the Black River, a trip that reveals the natural beauty of the island’s interior. Black from decomposing plants, the river is naturally biodiverse, despite having been a busy trade route for centuries. The bird life is rich with hundreds of species including the northern jacana, the namesake of a large medical-grade cannabis company, but primarily known as the Jesus bird for its seemingly biblical, delicate, backward walk on unseen floating plant matter. And then there are the crocodiles…

I was introduced to Treasure Beach by a travel writer I lived with, who I’d accompanied on his outings, many to Jamaica. We played board games at tea time in the Ralph Lauren-designed villas at Round Hill; spotted the Banksys in John Baker’s uber-hip, art-filled music studio-cum-hotel Gee Jam; manifested Moneypenny at Chris Blackwell’s stunning GoldenEye; and jumped off the cliffs at Negril’s Rockhouse. But where I felt instantly in place was at the unpretentious, boho-charming boutique hotel Jakes. There was a sense of “knowing” the people there, especially the Henzell family, who are its proprietors.

During the first year of COVID, I used Hotel Tonight like crack. An ugly divorce from The Writer left me with the Long Island weekend place as my full-time residence. I’d turn on the app, look for a room in Manhattan’s Financial District where a client was in crisis, and book. The Thompson Gild Hall at $139! Off I went. As hotels started to reopen, value proposition was the game. Mr. C at $169! I preferred the staff, rooms, and food. Bless those Ciprianis. The work week went by and I’d return to Bellport to start again. The Smyth for $189; the Roxy for $159; the Walker for $99—$99! I spent months moving among downtown hotels. The sense of home I sought was only ever found at the Jane, but it was too close to the old apartment and too painful to be so nearby.

“In a world where apps preclude front-desk hondling and no one sees the upgrade tears—‘the divorce is destroying me’—to be treated humanely is a blessing.”

Hotel life is no substitute for home life, but at places like the Jane—where staff remembered my room preference and the name of my dog (Zoloft), and, on occasion, would keep a bag for me if I was returning a few days later—I felt their embrace. The masks, irregular housekeeping, and closed restaurant didn’t matter. The warmth did. In a world where apps preclude front-desk hondling and no one sees the upgrade tears—“the divorce is destroying me”—to be treated humanely is a blessing. Thank you, Jane Hotel—and farewell. Jeff Klein is making it over as a members club, like his San Vicente Bungalows in Los Angeles.

The first thing I spotted in the “lobby” at Jakes, which is a partially open-air, original Treasure Beach house, was a poster for the film The Harder They Come. I knew the Michael Thelwell novel, having worked at its publisher, Grove Press. Most people know the Jimmy Cliff song, and now the Public Theater’s Broadway-bound stage adaptation of the crime film, set in a rough part of Kingston. I rambled on about it to the clerk and was told, “The owner’s late husband directed it.” Next, I spotted what I thought was a Kate Simon photograph of Bob Marley. I’ve known Kate since I was 18 and her tales of traveling with Marley are embedded in my thoughts of the country. At times, I see Jamaica through her eyes—and her lens. Feeling her presence hit me with a wave of familiar joy. I later found out the photo was by Peter Simon, Carly’s brother—a rock-’n’-roll irony that only amused me, as it was so Jakes.

I knew the Henzell family was deeply connected to the arts and social justice in Jamaica—the late pater familias Perry brought Marley to Chris Blackwell’s attention, directed the nation’s first feature film, and wrote a musical about Marcus Garvey. His wife, Sally, who created Jakes, is an artist and designer. Their daughter, Justine, produces the internationally-renowned Calabash Literary Festival and is working with Booker winner Marlon James (discovered at Calabash) on an HBO series set in Kingston. And their son, Jason, in addition to running the hotel, founded the Breds Treasure Beach Sports Park Foundation and Skills Training Program for local youth.

It was Christmastime, pre-pandemic, and friends were in residence at the hotel and in villas nearby—music, fashion, art, literary publishing, and media folk. Someone waved from a terrace—no way, she seems so St. Barts. Someone else invited me for drinks. Didn’t I used to see her in Tulum? But with all the familiarity, this was the most mellow scene I’d seen at Christmas outside New York, with New Yorkers, ever. And add some Brits and Italians. Plus, Treasure Beach and Jakes, unlike much of Jamaica, have a natural flow of locals and tourists. There are no gates to hide behind.

If I had to introduce myself with the signifiers common in the age of identity politics, I’m a Gay Jewish Socialist on a Spiritual Path who embraces the use of Hallucinogens in rituals inspired by Indigenous Cultures. Or, as I once overheard, “That one gave up silly for Psilocybin.” So, Treasure Beach works for me. It’s funky, it’s self-selecting, the restaurants are few and unpretentious. And there’s an emerging self-discovery and wellness scene at Empress’s Wise Wellness Center, which complements newcomers to the psychedelic retreat space.

The only thing I tripped on that week was a rock. As the skiff that went up the Black River returned to the beachfront by Jakes, I saw friends waving from the beach. It was the couple who, with their six-year-old son in tow, chaperoned me on my first date with The Writer. I despised a cheeky column he had in the New York Times, so I thought it best to have an escape route if he was anything like it—flatulent and pretentious. I jumped off the boat and ran toward them but never made it. My toe hit a rock and blood started gushing. My friends got me to a local health clinic where the care I received was warm, efficient, and professional. The Writer worried aloud and suggested a medivac to Kingston be arranged. My toe may have been broken, and the missing nail made for an ugly scene, but his suggestion changed the mood entirely—first the nurse, then my friends, then I burst into a kind of hysterical laughter that eventually even he joined. That clinic in Treasure Beach beat any urgent care place any of us had ever been to in NYC.

On New Year’s Eve, Sally Henzell invited people to her home. I arrived with a limp, high on painkillers. Her houseguest was Marianne Faithfull. I became a fan at 16, when “Broken English” came out in 1979. It was in regular rotation on the turntables of Hurrah, Danceteria, and Mudd Club. My friends and I would run to the dance floor whenever that song came on, dancing in a circle, singing with fingers pointed at one another: “What are you fighting for? What are you fighting for?” Seeing her, I was transported back to my junior year of high school, underage and all the rage. I was dancing the nights away at Hurrah and sleeping with the doorman. Maybe it was the Percocet, but I saw her across the room as if she were onstage, singing that other high-school anthem for the brokenhearted, “Why D’ya Do It?” I don’t think we even got all the references, but her anger and passion rushed through all of our bodies as we shook our hair with fingers in the air. Everyone else saw the aging beauty having a hard time with the humidity—she may have had emphysema. She was sweating, wiping her brow. I saw the punk goddess singing about the betrayal of her little oyster. When I came out of it, I introduced myself as a friend of her producer Hal Wilner, who was the mastermind behind her comeback record Strange Weather, made after she kicked a 17-year heroin habit. We were just a couple of old ex-junkies shooting the shit and talking about Hal’s habit. He died of COVID in April 2020. He was clean from heroin for several years before his death.

Almost two years to the day after his passing, I returned to Treasure Beach. I was getting used to single life, was getting closer to 60, had begun my training in Theta Healing and Reiki, and was ready for the “trip” trip. Psilocybin is legal in Jamaica. My friend—speaking of former junkies—the harm-reduction activist, Iboga shaman, and writer Dimitri Mugianis partnered with renowned psychotherapist Ross Ellenhorn to create Cardea, a psychedelic psychotherapeutic endeavor focused on using creative practices to enable human transformation. After touring Jamaica, they chose Treasure Beach for their psilocybin retreats. They also have a ketamine space in SoHo designed by artist Randy Polumbo.

“My intentions for both Jamaica trips were to grapple with the present—to establish comfort on the new ground offered by going solo in life—if not to look outward and upward.”

Before I could even say “Jakes,” their genius local fixer Brian Campbell—whom I think of as the Jamaican Mossad—set them up with Bred Treasure Beach Sports Centre, where they would contribute profit, and connected them with Empress, whose business had grown from a small upstairs shop outside of town to an in-town yoga center, café, health food store, and holistic pharmacy offering indigenous cures and psilocybin mushrooms grown by James Godfrey’s Psacred Therapeutics. Godfrey, whose villas house the retreats, also offered them the opportunity to bring guests to sacred tribal land he preserves nearby. The villas’ madam domo is his wife, Jodi-Ann Moser. Treasure Beach is a very small town.

Dimitri, who is like a brother to me, Ross, and I all turned 60 last year. My December birthday was the day before the second Cardea retreat would begin. Of course, I was at Jakes. They joined me for what truly felt like a family dinner. I introduced them to Sally, who was decorating the trees on the grounds with holiday ornaments. Their ceremonialists—DJ The Juan MacLean, rising stars in the world of indigenous healing Le’ Jai’ La’ Troi and Paola Guerrera, and the Mossad—joined as well. I grew close to this crew at the “Founders Retreat” in April 2022.

At the Founders Retreat, I kept leaving the ceremonies midway through—The Juan MacLean’s music tended to go a bit dark at the two-hour point, and I wanted to stay in a lighter place. I did a lot of digging in the past with Iboga, an African root bark used by the Bwiti in Gabon. It allowed me to unearth much about the past through the more ancestral dive it offers. My intentions for both Jamaica trips were to grapple with the present—to establish comfort on the new ground offered by going solo in life—if not to look outward and upward. While the root systems of mushrooms offer a vast network of knowledge, that part which is above ground contains spores that spread with the wind and create new landscapes. The messages came with visions of old friends, mentors lost during the worst days of the AIDS crisis. There was no past or present. We were in the moment and their guidance set me up. When I arrived for the big birthday trip, I was committed to staying through the ceremonies—but I lay down on a seaside terrace just outside. I heard the music, but I was transported by the sound of the sea and the visions I saw in the vast, starry sky. I cracked the code for the memoir I hadn’t been working on. Honor the past and the radical work and lives of the people who guided me—and work to create a path for others whose commitment needed the same guidance.

And something else happened: The mushrooms told me I don’t need them anymore, that it was time to take what I learned from them and skedaddle. That’s not to say I won’t return to Treasure Beach—I’m booking passage to go back for Justine’s Calabash Literary Festival. And maybe it will be the stop I make en route to Peru, where my spiritual mentor will be working with the vine. It’s time to climb even higher above the surface. Ayahuasca, here I come.