august 1, 2009
montego bay, jamaica
gracias a dios!. we're back in jamaica, mon. after just 12 days in communist, ganja-free cuba, our discomfort and disappointment have forced us to eat the $300 ticket-changing penalty, and get the hell out of dodge (i.e. havana)! apparently we haven't learned our jamaican lesson yet. and duh? what exactly is that lesson?
"pardone-me, senor." i've bumped into a short, stocky, maybe 60 year old gentleman behind me in line, as we're making our way through the havana airport rigamaroll. he's well dressed in a white pleated cubano-style dress shirt and he's standing with a large black woman who looks more jamaican than cuban. but believe me, it's hard to tell down here, with all the mumbo-jumbo inter-marriages. "no, problem," the thin-mustachioed dude says with a distinctly american accent. "are you from the states?" i sortie, much relieved to be back on stable linguistic ground, after getting chewed up and misunderstood for the last cubano fortnight.
we exchange the usual lightweight travelers' pleasantries, and the dude gives us his address in a toney suburb of montego bay. phone number too. of course, i know i'll never hear from him again, as i don't hear from 99% of the people i meet while traveling; even after spending days or weeks with them on the same trail, in the same lodgings, on the same transport; even after exchanging e-mail addresses and swearing whole-heartedly that we'll be sure to stay in touch. "next year in phuket, right?" it's just that way, one of the anonymous pleasures and vagaries of travel.
we crawl our way through the air jamaica check in line, and through outgoing customs. it's one at a time, and both times i've had to exit the communist country's immigration line through the shabby wooden exit door, by myself, i have the distinct feeling that my wife, who i've stupidly had follow me, will get caught up in some indonesian-american snafu, and i'll never see her again. it seems like half an hour this time, as i'm waiting, sweating mango bullets, until she routinely comes through the little cell block door... smiling.
it seems that fate is smiling upon us as well, because, lo and behold, the military-clad airport gestapo has slipped up. they've forgotten to collect our three hundred dollar flight change penalty. we can't believe our luck, but every time we see an official in their olive-drab revolutionary fatigues, or hear a loudspeaker announcement, we're sure that papa fidel is coming back for us, to collect his blood money... and to give us a little notorious cuban jail time for our effrontery.
but somehow... we miraculously escape, and now it's customs & immigration in montego bay, jamaica's disneyland of package tours and dancing dolphins in its most over-crowded, one horse beach town. it's the last place we said we'd come to in jamaica, but we have to exchange our august 6th flight back to LA ticket for today, or tomorrow, whatever we and delta can work out. for some odd reason, we're having a harder time getting back into jamaica than we had leaving cuba. the lines are long and the uniformed officials ask us a lot of questions. the usual: "where are you coming from?", "how long were you there?", etc. i'm still desperately paranoid about our "undocumented" fortnight in cuba. i was sure they'd hassle us getting back into the states, not here in "mobay". what if, like i've heard, the jamaican officials are cooperating with american immigration and homeland security? what if obama hasn't gotten the message from george w, and he wants to round us up too? "yankee si, cuba no, trules". cuban cigars, che t-shirts, we're surrounded by our own capitalist-purchasing evidence. i dig deep.... into my paranoid capitalist soul... i mean, ass, and i pull out the address of my "new friend" in mobay, the mustachioed dude from the havana airport.
"this is our address, sir." the customs official calls over his play pal, or perhaps his superior, who meticulously vidies our papers and the hand-scrawled penciled address my new amigo just gave me an hour ago. "si, senor," i lie. "that toney suburban address is mi casa, my home." the immigration dudes both look us over, trying to pierce the veil of truth with their beady border eyes. my wife gives them her best pearly whites, and... like the biblical waters of the red sea did for the beleaguered israelites... the jamaican immigration flood gates finally open for us.
i spend the next hour and a half in the mobay airport, unable to make the ticket exchange. apparently it's a free mileage ticket, so no money, no tickee. the delta ground service guy can't make the necessary phone connections; it doesn't help that it's a sunday. "i'm very sorry, mon, but you'll have to call delta in the states tomorrow." "ok, thanks," i say, more frustrated than thankful. "can you recommend an inexpensive hotel near the airport?" the young man thinks, coming up blank. "i don't really know, mon. just don't stay at the 'gloriana'." "ok, tanks, mon."
we grab a taxi and the dread-locked cabbie takes us directly to the gloriana. we get out and take a look. we like it. lots of locals and it's owned by "gloriana", the celebrated jamaican woman who started a little cottage hotel business on her own and turned it into a nationally branded industry. swimming pool in the center, internet connection, and home-made cookin' by gloriana herself, who still spends a good deal of her day in the kitchen. it reeks a little of bangkok: "anything you want any time..."; what more can you ask for?
before i know it, da wife is taking her requisite shower and "masquer" in our red velvet curtained room above the pool, and i'm roaming the labyrinthine grounds. i follow my nose and run into gilbert and his "boy", claude, who are just chilling, around one of the many corners of gloriana's home-made maze. the three of us chat and make the usual travelers' exchange of pleasantries, finding out as much about each other in as little time as possible. of course, you never know exactly what's true and what isn't, or how many travelers are living on their recently fabricated and newly-minted traveler's identity card. but again, it's one of those unique customs and luxuries of travel. gilbert, by his own admission, is a slightly burned out military undercover dude, who's lost his way in the herb-filled hills of negril. tonight, he's come to mobay for a "shipment" of some kind or other. no questions asked. he's come with his beautiful jamaican wife, shirley-ann, who is a self-professed gloriana wannabe, and she quickly invites me and da wife back in a few years to her an' gilbert's own little piece of paradise in them thar hills of negril, no doubt trendily adjacent to their sexy neighbors, harrison ford and his ally mcbeal.
in fact, why don't we "forget about changing our plane ticket altogether and just go with claude and de boys to our little place in negril... tomorrow?" "really? could we?" "yah, mon," claude chimes in, with a smile as wide as the river jordan. he's, by far, the handsomest and most charming young jamaican dude i've seen yet, and i tell him, "if you can convince my wife, mon, i'm all in." claude flashes me one of his practiced pearly whites, even pearlier dan me own wife's, and he practically croons, "bring her along tonight, mon. what she like to eat?"
well... i pull out my best old school, new yawk charm, and i manage to round up de wife to go wid claude an' 3 (tree) of his local crew members, and we all hit mobay on a sunday night in full stride. the joint is jumping... with steel drums, local gospel from a raised stage, endless vendors and touts, soft-bellied touristas from all over de dope-smoking planet, and... de best smelling grilled fish in de world. at least dat's what i tink. an' de wife, she confirms it, mon. i mean, claude delivers on his promise. he gets her a whole grilled goggle-eyed fish, wrapped in charred tinfoil, fresh from the open fire of one of his mobay "friends". de cooked fish be swimming in its own vegetable stew, mon, an' de wife, being a recent vegetarian convert, seem mighty pleased.
de boys continue to do dere ting, smacking and crowing all 'round her, making da mrs. seem like de center of all of de mobay. we all be rollin' and dey take us down some dark, shady alley, far off the main drag, definitely a route not on any tourist's map or dance card. i know i'm the stupidest or luckiest gringo in mobay; i'm just not sure which. before we know it, we're at the dead end of de alley with a lot of tough looking locals hanging out, drinking from open containers. it's absolutely the perfect place... to get rolled. but travel, my brudders an' sisters, is all about following your instincts, knowing who to trust and when get yourself out of dodge. you can always count on chance encounters and unsuspected surprises; you just try to choose the most enticing ones, without paying too high a price, whedder dat price be in dollars or personal comfort, my brudders and sisters.
soon we're inside de bar, and the big jamaican woman are just as drunk as their men. they're grinding their big booties up against their rail-thin men, who seem more interested in de rum an' de talk den in de goods they're being offered. i be tinkin' dat dere's a not so funny, too-open-about-sex kinda ting going on all over jamaica.. seem like de men spread dere male, bar-hanging, macho seed far an wide. very far, mon... fathering as many children as they can muster, only to chalk up anudder notch on their gunslinger's belt. while de women, dey be young and wild only long enough to get knocked up and start raisin' dere children by demselves. strong men? no, mon. strong women. yah, mon. but stupid.
we all be drinking de red stripe beer, and it seem like claude and his crew are taking a perverse kind of pleasure in showing me an' de wife off in this rough-hewn, back alley bar. it's like we're their, particularly claude's, white trophy tourists. by bringing us here, and protecting us from harm, he be "de man". he be showing off his personal power. an' he be demanding, and getting, respect from the local tuffs, by just having us safely in his posse. sure, de local bar flies shoot us constant, "what the fuck you doin here?", looks, but claude an' de boys just order us anudder red stripe, and by early de next morning, mon, de whole delta ticket exchange ting be long forgotten. we be packed up wid 200 dollars worth of groceries for 5 days in negril, mon, de cleanest 27 miles of white sand de lord ever done see.
by now, my brudder an' sisters, de wife an' i done covered almost de entire perimeter of de island: from funky kingston to de southeast corner of portland parish. from de east coast of zion country and long bay, to de cruise ship port of ocho rios. from de northeast coast over to montego bay. and now, we finally be driving a rented white '94 toyota corolla wagon over to de very northwest corner of negril. put dat together wid our straight dash over de blue mountains from kingston to ocho in a day and back, an' like i said, we done covered de island better den most of de islanders demselves. anudder trick of travel, eh? de traveler sees more of de country den almost all de people of de country demselves. hah!
ok! we're cruising along de 27 miles of god's sandy white plot of paradise. there's one toney condo unit after another. one toney green golf course after another, we guess for harrison and his well-heeled friends. but us? de boys take us to de ultra shabbiest white piece of paradise we ever seen. in fact, it ain't even white. "how you like it, mon?" claude croons with his pearly whites, his "crew" chiming in: meet "leroy" his real, look-alike brother, "betta boy", his runt of the litter, cousin, and long tall, "sally", his wiseacre, perpetually smiling yes man. a slicker crew of black-skinned b-boys, you never seen, my brudders an' sisters. lucky us, eh? and hey, although de beach be disappointing, to say de least, we still do have 300 bucks of fidel's gratuitous gold to spend...
we reach the end of the toney tourist strip and make a left turn around the bend of de island, heading back inland to where the locals live. about half a mile further on, we turn away from the sea, into a obviously dilapidated plot of god's piece of paradise. dere are weeds everywhere, or is that cannabis, a half built open porch ("dat's gonna be de bar, mon"), and we park de rented toyota wagon wid the 200 dollars of groceries in de middle of de yard. "how you like it, mon?" claude croons again. uh.... how i like it, mon? i look at de wife, who can tell i'm on a short fuse towards eruption, and she say, very polite-like, "where are we supposed to stay?" "right dere, in gilbert's place, mon." he ushers us over to this tiny wood house. it's full of crap: work tools, soiled laundry, office supplies... heaps of things scattered randomly and slovenly about. "where we supposed to sleep?" i say, in a suddenly very un-patois accent. "right dere," claude points, also no longer smiling. he points to a makeshift bed with soiled and rumpled sheets, amongst the heaps of crap. there's no separation between this wreck of a space and gilbert and shirley-anne's space. and standing there, looking around at this train wreck of a choice i've made, feeling entirely vulnerable, while simultaneously feeling my pot begin to boileth over, i know surely... that it's going to be a lonnnng, lonnnng time before this property ever gets converted into negril's next hotel gloriana. i also know one other thing: dat me an' de wife have just been had.... jamaican style.
i storm around in the yard for a while, letting off some steam, embarrassing de wife as well as de crew. "mother fucker! mother... fucker!" they all stare at me. no one knows what to do. not me. not them. not even da wife. there's no room for the 200 dollars of groceries. there's no room for us. "let's go," i say. "where to?" claude says mournfully. he looks all the 19 years he actually is. "i don't care," i say. "let's just get out of here." he looks at me once more, tries to open his mouth of pearly whites, and then instructs the boys. "let's just go."
we can't drive back to mobay. it's too late. we can't exchange our plane ticket. it's too late. we can't just get rid of the boys. the rented car is full of our shit. "where to, boss?" claude has just reduced or elevated me to being gilbert. i'm supposed to know what to do. i clearly don't. "let's just drive," i say. we do. we pull into just about every place we see. we ask for a room for 6. there are none. we can't just ditch the boys. like i said, we're tied somewhere between the toyota's axel and the 200 dollars worth of groceries. finally we find a little place. it's on the cheap side of the shore, but the black woman who manages the property takes pity on us and says we can stay for a few days. tank da lawd.
we unpack the 200 dollars of fresh fish, ackee, sweet potatoes, bread, rice, eggs, yogurt, bacon, mushrooms, pasta, pasta sauce, carrots, lettuce, mango, avocado, and claude an' da wife start preparing the feast. i just jump in the salty negrillian sea and try to clear my head of all its negativity. i come back up, fix everyone a stiff rum and coke, and start to get blindly drunk. the boys are on easy street and much relieved that we seem to be going with the flow. they kick back on the beachwood chairs and light up. we like these kids. they're funny, street smart, and we'd like to think, honest. maybe they actually thought they were bringing us to god's and gilbert's little piece of negrillian paradise. who knew? we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. they'd probably never hung out with people like us (like me, actually. da wife, she was third world herself at one time), and we'd (i'd) never hung out with 4 boys like this. back to back, my brothers. belly to belly....
just then, a very white-skinned, middle aged woman comes to our open door. she sticks her head in rudely asks "for a word" with me. she's joan, the actual owner of the property, and she quickly wants to know "who exactly are your 'friends''? i can tell immediately that's she's freaked out that 4 black boys, claude, leroy, betta boy, and sally, are on her property. she brings me up to her office and tells me, even more mournfully, that her manager neglectfully forgot to check with her, and that she can not possibly have "locals" there on her property, what with the history of theft in town, where everyone knows everyone, etc. etc. and although i "seemed like a well-intentioned man", that in fact, i "actually had no idea what it was like to own property and run a guest house in jamaica". "howse that?" i enquire. "i was thinking of running a little guest house in bali one day when i retire." "be that as it may", joan squirms, "you don't know these 'locals'. they act so helpful and friendly with guests and then they come back weeks, months, later, to rob the place blind." i don't know what to say to joan, but i come out with, "look, joan, these boys brought us to negril as their guests. we came in the same car. we can't exactly kick them out, now can we?"
joan squirms and fumes. we stare at each other. in silence. and hostility. for a long time.
finally, she says, "well, i understand your position. you can finish cooking your dinner, clean up, and then the boys will have to leave." "can they come back for breakfast and take us back to mobay in the morning?" "well," joan fumes again and demuses. "ok. as long as you make it quick."
and that was that. we had our feast: fresh negrillian fish, a combo pasta of everything we'd bought for 5 days, salad, ackee, sweet potatoes, eggs, bacon, bread, yogurt, all we could eat of the 200 dollars of groceries... in 2 meals. we drove back to montego bay the next morning in our rented white '94 toyota corolla wagon. we changed our plane tickets for the following day and had a lovely last jamaican meal with gloriana herself. the boys drove us to the airport in the morning, still in the rented toyota, and we gave them all the left over, uneaten groceries, for which they seemed genuinely grateful. as we hugged at the airport drop off, we also gave them all of our unspent jamaican cash, for which they seemed even more grateful. once we were home, da wife humbly admitted to me that she had slipped claude an extra 40 bucks, US, to which i mournfully replied, "good for you."
we flew back to LA, uneventfully, and we happily took up residence once again at safe and secure, sorta white bread, lucretia gardens. the lesson i referred to at the top on this long-winded travel mis-adventure? promising you, my patient reader, a well-rounded piece worth your investment of time, so precious in our end-of empire, omnipotent all american, world. well... i'm afraid....
there is none!
just kidding! the lesson? well.... perhaps only that black boys are mistrusted and mistreated the world over. even on the idyllic white sands of montego bay and negril. even by white-skinned invaders and property buyers who have the power and privilege, but not the manners, to treat the natives like neighbors and civilized human beings. not much different than senors cortez and pizarro, you say? well, hey, claude and i have to agree.
"one love," bob marley and his rastafari brothers and sisters like to sing? you know, i'd really like to believe it. i went all the way around de island – from de funky kingston ghettos to de beautiful rasta outback – to see if it was true. and what can i say? what can i conclude? only that: unless maybe you be high, 24-7, we... sadly... live in the oh too "real" world.
is it rolling?