If a film director were handed an
unlikely cast of characters -- say, an Austrian farmer-cum-dog
musher, an American recording artist and a middle-aged romantic
dreamer on a tropical island -- one might worry that the result
would seem, at best, contrived.
Throw in a plot
involving a pack of stray dogs headed for the death chamber, polo
ponies swimming in the sea and a legendary impresario making bets
on obscure talent, and you have a real mess on your hands -- or
perhaps a successful venture into the genre known as magical
It turns out that
magical realism, the realm where dream logic and reality blend
seamlessly, is not limited to fiction. An instance of the genre
recently played out, with the elements described above, in the
sphere of travel and tourism.
Two years ago, Danny
Melville, founder of Chukka Caribbean Adventures in Ocho Rios,
Jamaica, was shopping for a dune buggy in Canada when he spied a
small, strange-looking, custom-built three-wheeled trailer off to
one side. It was a dogsled designed to be pulled on land rather
than through snow.
that a Jamaican dogsled team would have appeal as an oddball
tourist attraction. But, in the spirit of the Jamaican bobsled
team, he wanted to do something more, something inspiring and
The heat of Jamaica
would be intolerable to snow dogs, but he recalled there was a
surplus of sun dogs on the island, street mongrels collected by the
Jamaican Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and, more
often than not, euthanized.
Melville's love for
animals is what got him into the tour industry more than 20 years
ago. He ran a polo club then, and after matches he and other
players would ride into the sea to cool the ponies down. The
animals didn't seem to mind that the riders stayed aboard, and
they'd begin to swim with the riders on their back. Melville began
promoting horseback riding/horseback swimming tours.
After he returned
from Canada, Melville approached the JSPCA and worked out a deal in
which he would give strays on death row a "second chance" as sled
dogs, and the JSPCA would monitor the training and care of the
dogs. With that agreement in hand, he approached singer Jimmy
Buffett, whose Margaritaville bars are popular in Ocho Rios and
Montego Bay. Buffett agreed to become the primary sponsor for the
team -- "the Godfather," Melville calls him.
Melville's top horse trainer, was dispatched to the Yukon to learn
to mush under the guidance of Hans Gatt, an Austrian farmer who has
become a champion dogsledder. Anderson, who had scarcely been off
the island, not only learned to mush but to mush like a champion.
By the time he returned to Jamaica, he had placed respectably in
snow races above the 60th parallel. He then returned to Jamaica to
train other mushers.
A film --
documentary, not magical realism -- was made about the project.
Remember the impresario taking a chance on obscure talent? Chris
Blackwell, whose Island Records nurtured a young Bob Marley, also
owns a film distribution company. Blackwell agreed to be an
executive producer of "Sun Dogs," a documentary about the
development of the Jamaican sled dog team, and he hired a promising
young Canadian director, Andrea Stewart, to make the film. The
movie debuted earlier this month to positive reviews at the
ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto.
The same week as the
premiere, Melville added the Jamaica Dogsled Experience to his tour
offerings in Ocho Rios. For $40, visitors hear the dogsled story,
view an exhibit and short film and, most importantly, meet the
dogs. (Tip: When standing near one named Smiley, lavish him with
attention. Otherwise, he will get your attention by marking you as
his territory.) For $100 each, two people a day can ride in a
exclusivity of the ride confers some bragging rights, the
"experience" part of the tour brings plenty of emotional
satisfaction. The magic is in the story, and its power is amplified
by the opportunity to pet happy dogs that, in straightforward
reality, have been given a second chance for life.