Go, Daddy, go!

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post that was mainly pictures of a road trip from Kingston to Ocho Rios. I mentioned, in passing, that stories were in that journey, as there are in all aspects of life, and that I may go to tell them. Well, my mind is ready to tell some of them.

You can travel to the north coast from Kingston by several routes. Many people prefer to take the ‘faster’ route, via Spanish Town, Linstead, Ewarton, Mount Rosser, Moneague, and Fern Gully. It’s a nice route, especially passing through the ferns, but I sometimes dislike passing Mount Rosser and the possible delays of getting stuck behind a heavy truck or several. So, I asked the man who was due to drive us in his minivan to take us through St. Mary, via Junction: that route also involves a big hill, but I like it for being picturesque and going through a part of the country where one can see a major industry in action. We pass near to the banana growing areas owned by Jamaica Producers, and can see and smell their ‘St. Mary’s’ brand processing plant for banana and plantain chips.

That route also takes us near to the Richmond-Highgate area of St. Mary, where my father was born and raised. I used that sentimental reason to persuade the driver to head north that way; we would come back on the other route. My father had his 85th birthday on Monday–about which I also wrote this week–and, by happy accident, taking a trip to catch up with some US visitors gave us a chance to take him out. He’s a stroke survivor and largely confined to a bed because he cannot walk, but he gets to sit up in a wheel chair and moves around in that. As we prepared for our trip, I wondered aloud if he would have another chance to pass through this area. It was not a morbid thought, just a conscious awareness of something real. So, off we went.

I’d asked that my daughter be excused school for the afternoon, so she was in the van with us, and we were six in total, including the driver. My father’s nurses are both women from Manchester, near Mandeville. The driver, whom we’d only met through another acquaintance, was also from Mandeville. Happy coincidence? He was a careful driver and did not race, thus allowing me to try to point out some interesting things to all the ladies. We’d taken a trip to Robin’s Bay a few months back, so the route was not totally new to my daughter, but we tried to embellish it with stories about where my dad grew up. We asked him along the way if he remembered certain places. The parish is normally very lush, and so it seemed, but the rivers looked near bone dry–stark contrast to the reports of flash flooding in the northern part of the parish some months ago.

My father, with his yams, in his 50s, during the late-’80s, Mandeville

My dad seemed to enjoy the recollections.

We made it to the new bridge toward Richmond-Highgate and pointed this out–we wanted to call my aunt to tell her we were passing nearby, but thought she’d complain too much that we were not stopping.

Taxi passengers taking a break
Taxi passengers taking a break

Instead, we will plan to visit her soon.

Bridges are part of Jamaica’s landscape and also part of its tragic development. Some are constantly being washed away in heavy rains. Some take years to be built or rebuilt and communities suffered for years because of that. They are also lively places to help economic and social activity, connecting areas and stopping some places and people being isolated in areas that would otherwise be near-impassable.

We enjoyed passing the papaya plantations after the turn off to Robin’s Bay: “I loooove papayas,” came a squeaky voice from the back. We passed Port Maria and were caught briefly in the hustle of the town centre as people waited for taxis and meandered around the streets. It gave me the chance to take a few pictures of normal life. We then hit the coast. The air suddenly changed as sea breeze hit us. We also gasped a little as the landscape changed abruptly, from lush tree-lined views to sea and islands and sand and the mountains to our back and sides.

We had made good time and as we passed through Oracabessa and Boscobel aerodrome, we joked about how easy it would have been to fly up in our non-existent corporate jet.

Coastal view in northern St. Mary
Coastal view in northern St. Mary

Then, we were in Ocho Rios. We went straight to the condominium development where our friends were staying and found them immediately–the children were in the pool, while the mothers were in Mothers getting patty and jerk chicken lunches. Great timing. We unpacked ourselves and my daughter was with her former classmates in minutes.

My father, now in his mid-80s, by the pool

My dad and his chair were parked in the cool lobby, and we all stretched ourselves.

We spent the afternoon just enjoying a change of scene.

Roadside 'shop' in St. Mary
Roadside ‘shop’ in St. Mary

My dad moved to the poolside and then was set up in a lounge chair–the real jet setter. We ate our lunches. I took a good nap, because I’d played a round of golf from dawn that morning and now I was feeling a little tired. We talked and joked and just hung out. We’d made good time, about two hours. We planned to stay about four hours, so I had in my mind a departure around 6pm. That would give the driver a good rest and we could make some headway before dark.

When it came time to leave, the girls were all hugs and kisses. So, too, was I with their parents; we’d known each other a few years as our children had started elementary school together. They had loved their few days in Jamaica, and couldn’t eat enough local food to be satisfied. They’d stopped at Faith’s Pen on their way to Ochie, and eaten everything available, and had plans to do so on their way back to Kingston on Thursday. Go, Jamaica!

We hit the road near 6:15 and were passing Fern Gully just as the light was going. We made good time, with a short stop at Bog Walk for fruit and jelly coconuts–another of my daughter’s loves.

Bog Walk fruit stall at night time
Bog Walk fruit stall at night time

The driver had put on ’80s music and we were all singing and jiving in the van like a bunch of teenagers. I wondered if he understood the significance of the ’80s (which had also been the theme for my daughter’s school spirit day). My father was shouting “Music, driver, music!” We were home just after 8pm. All were tired, and all were very contented. The driver had to do the trip again the next day to bring back the visitors for their flight back to the cold of Washington DC. We’d had a good day.

Family valued

My wife’s family pride themselves on having something they think many of their compatriots have lost–close family ties. When Christmas rolls around each year, they get the chance to show well that they are closely knit. They try to organize several events for all the family who are around at this time of year. Many of the younger members are away studying, but come back to The Bahamas for Christmas. Those who live and work abroad, like my wife, ‘come home’ for Christmas–she has never spent Christmas any where besides Nassau. Those who live on New Providence are happy to have their usual numbers raised by the returning flock. Marriages have drawn in some extras. Children come onto the scene through marriages, and swell the numbers a little more each year; deaths in recent years have been few. Girlfriends, boyfriends–if they are serious contenders–get introduced, and there is a ‘vetting process’ that may ensure that they stay or never return. Fiancés and fiancées–those who have passed ‘the test’–come along too.

The Christmas season is a religious festival and church-going is an important part of that. The family want to go and be seen to have gone to church for all the major services during the season. You have to get used to be quizzed if you’ve not been to church for one of those services. The services are long, but the bonding is important. These islands are small and many people really do know each other and are proud of who they can call friends or family.

No snow to dash through, walking to the start of ‘dine and dash’

Meals together play a very important part in making the family glue. Dinner on Christmas Day is the main event. I did not do a head count, but I think about 100 people were at dinner this past Wednesday. The location is not that important–though the family has had a special venue for the past few years. It is held usually at the home of one of the family members. It’s not a pot luck, but all of the food is homemade. Over the years, various parts of the family have been assigned dishes to prepare–they become the keepers of certain secrets–and dinner brings all of those dishes together. All the traditional favourites are there–roast turkey, stuffing, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, baked beans (made from an old family recipe), cole slaw (Bahamians love their slaw); desserts–rum cake, fruit cake, other baked goods. Wines and soft drinks add to the festivities, but it’s not a carousing time. The family eats heartily, but commune well at the same time. Children are not served first; that privilege is for the seniors, who also have a special table set up for them.

That dinner is when many people can catch up on stories from the past year, but it’s also time just to mingle. Outsiders are not usually invited, but a few do get through the door, and are welcomed generously–their contribution, if any, will often be drinks. They are often amazed that so many people gather together for a meal. I’ve never seen the meal dissolve into a squabble, and that is not always the case with large family gatherings. The dinner can be the time for some ‘serious talking’: where I sat, all we discussed was the looming imposition of VAT, and my wife was getting it in the neck 🙂 I tucked into my meal and offered my words, but we never reached any resolution.

Other events that help reinforce the family are meant to draw together as many as possible. A ‘dine and dash’–progressive meal–is now a must: it nearly got cancelled this year, and that would have been a tragedy. We had it yesterday, and as usual, headed to five different homes, most of us in a bus and others coming in cars–just over 40 people came. Each of the designated ‘stops’ offers a course: drinks, soup, salad, main course, desserts. We arranged to start at 3pm, and in un-Caribbean fashion most people were ready to go then. A few had other ‘commitments’–Miami Dolphins were playing for their playoff spot and some of their diehard fans would have to miss a few courses and get picked up en route.

The ‘dash’ is often loads of fun. Those on the bus tell jokes and sing carols; children sit at the back and learn ‘from their grandma’s knees’, as she’s a good story-teller and knows all the Christmas carols. Her joke about ‘selling Bibles’ is an oldie but goodie and cracks us up every time, even though most of us know it. We should have made a video of one of the bus rides. I don’t know what the car riders do–solve the political problems, I’ve heard. We are not bad singers and like to ‘raise a tune’. A few of the carols end up as “la-la-la-la-la” but most of them we know well. The bus driver joins in if he can without turning us over. We pile into the bus as if we are headed off to the seaside, and trail off as if we are visiting a museum.

We enjoy our hosts’ offerings and find somewhere to sit or stand and are not fussed about that, except for the soup, which is a bit hot. At the end of each course, we launch ourselves into a couple of verses of The twelve days of Christmas–holding onto the “FIve golden rings” as well as any choir. We then pile back in and get on with more caroling. New Providence is small, but it’s still a journey to go from end to end. We start in the east, head west, then come back east. We end with dessert at the home of the cake-making family. Where else? We fill ourselves with trifle, coconut tarts and more cake, washing it down with tea and coffee, and our voices are raised for the final verses of The twelve days.

Natter, natter, yackety yacking. “All aboard!”

After giving thanks to the driver and the hosts, we’re free to go. This year, the dash seemed slower–“We’re not in any hurry” the main organizer said at one stage–and with a general designated driver, it’s the right approach. We finished at about 9pm this year, totally sung out.

During the family dinner, one of the husbands of a family ‘sister’ thanked the family for keeping together. No one cheered his words, not out of disrespect, but more because it was a thank you well understood and a sentiment deeply understood. No one said “the country has gone to the dogs and it’s all because they don’t have family like this”, but I know many believe that to be true.

Everyone touched by the family feels blessed to have had the experience and tries to hold onto it. We know that families are not all love and kisses. We should know that Christmastime can be when strains and stresses raise their heads and bit many. They don’t get much showing at the group events, though, and I’ll live with the illusion that they are also on vacation.

Economic hardships and health problems have meant that a few family events were dropped this year; I hope that they will resume next year. It’s costly to feed and water the hordes and the family has to address how to share costs. People also need to step up with their time and commitment to prepare things if others cannot this time or any other.

Tonight, the family will go bowling. It’s the only time most of us will set foot in a bowling alley all year. We are not a group of great bowlers–unless soup is in a bowl–but this is fun. Older folks don’t usually play, but love to watch the ‘younger ones’ having fun; occasionally, one of them may swing a ball and not end up being dragged along or slip on the floor. It’s not really about the score or bragging rights, though they may loom large for a few. The time and spirit together are what’s important.

Jumayka, nuff prablem…but wi ‘appy tu rahtid…

I imagine that many people think of Jamaica as a happy and wonderful place. The images of smiling, laughing, dancing, singing, “Nuh prablem, man!” people attract foreign tourists. It would seem that these images are not wholly a myth. The UN commissioned Gallup to poll people and construct a World Happiness Report: Jamaica ranked 40th out 0f 156 countries, after the negative effects of corruption and lacklustre growth were discounted–not trivial impediments, but let’s leave that alone for the moment. Northern European countries took the top three spots (though given the high suicide rate usually associated with Finland, I find their 2nd position a bit suspect).happy

Is this high happiness something the country should exploit further? Those who try to market health and wellness tourism know that such environments may represent future boom areas. It could draw in more tourists, but also a particular breed of entrepreneurs. Look at the recent story of Randolph Cheeks, who returned to Jamaica, after studying and working abroad, to help with its development and who is ‘happy with his decision to return home,… he believes that Jamaica’s future lies in its ability to attract back and retain its human talent’. VW recently tried to exploit this happiness image in one of its adverts. “Chill, Winston!” could be a catchphrase for the ages.

But, being fair, consider Mark Wignall’s counter arguments that Jamaicans may be happy for the wrong reasons. The country has a litany of problems, and while my own philosophy is to see ‘problems’ as opportunities or challenges to be overcome, there’s no doubting the weight these put on people. I always thought, when I was working and living in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, that despite the beauty and natural richness of the land, life was often so hard that it just wore people down. Limited access to safe running water for many. Limited access to stable and regular electricity for many. A political regime that made many capricious decisions. Corruption in many walks of life. Growth that had been faltering for years. A plummeting exchange rate. Roads that sometimes turned into open pits, and which could be the scene of some horrific accidents. A growing sense of tension between ethnic groups (‘tribes’ in some senses). What Guineans suffer is not so different from what many experience in Jamaica, though I sense that government actions do not have anything resembling a similar level of capriciousness. But, Jamaicans do not seem worn down in any similar way, even though you’ll often hear “Mi a suffa!”

Income inequality in Jamaica is not much different from for many middle-income countries. Many Jamaicans have a quality of life that would be the envy of many people, with the generally great climate, abundant local foods and plenty more imported, whether raw or cooked, and a picturesque vista from almost anywhere on the island. I’m not trying to lack sensitivity for those whose plight is dire–of which there are too many, in shanty towns, gully communities, or just indigent on the road.1004097_10151574688934022_2029884106_n-1 Is the country too tolerant of beggars? No country or its citizens can feel happy with the kind of abject poverty that can sometimes be seen on a street in Kingston, whatever its cause. But, for what it’s worth and whatever the individual motivations, many Jamaicans are ready and willing to address such situations as they see best. They don’t seek to institutionalize such people. They often offer direct help, and that may be a few dollars in the hand, or some food, or some clothes, or the offer of some ‘work’–help. It may get rejected, which may seem surprising, but it’s a free country.

Many families remain close and support each other, whether with the help of remittances (in-cash or in-kind) from abroad or without. People still seem to have a great regard for rest and recreation: evenings and weekends can form important down time, and when chance comes to leave the city and head ‘to country’, it’s taken. Some anachronistic things seem in keeping with the slower pace: movies still have an intermission, when people go to get their drinks and snacks. Church and religion are important in the life balance for most people: after church in the morning comes family lunch, before or after a nap. This Sunday, we had friends and some family over for lunch in the mid-afternoon, and by about 7.30pm, the last guests were slowly leaving. Kids had played all the time, when they were not eating. Adults talked or just cooled out. We’d done the same the week before, but as guests not hosts.  Most business places are closed and roads are very quiet on Sundays.

Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things.

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