Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #7: May I take your order?

International travel and food can be a volatile mixture of both pleasures and pain. Whenever, I hear those “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” questions, I usually start to giggle hysterically and that my family are quickly pulling the straitjacket out of the cupboard. So, let’s go over a few highlights and lowlights, just from the world of work. I think when I travel for pleasure, it’s open season; work settings ought to be safer. Hmm, maybe.

When you’re presented with sheep’s eyeballs, do you turn the pupils away before you bite? Azerbaijan is Turkey’s cousin and has some of my favourite food. But, traditions are different. When the host of the banquet wants to show his appreciation for the work the IMF team did, he offers the mission chief the first pair of sheep’s eyeballs. But, the crafty manager, has a solution ready: “Dennis, why don’t you do the honours?” To quote Basil Fawlty: “You bastard!”

Swallow, gulp, swallow, slurp vodka, swallow…Belch! You have to show your appreciation of the delicacy.

Staying with Azerbaijan, but the other end of the tasty scale, though an oddity for most, something I grew to love: Beluga caviar (sturgeon roe), raised plentifully in the Caspian Sea.

The Azeris loved to give the mission members several jars at the end of work; some had no interest, so I was a willing taker of surplus. I often stopped in London on my way home to stay with my wife’s uncle, who was a High Commissioner at the time. He and his wife supplied Champagne to go with my ‘rent’ payment. Bliss! Admittedly, it’s really preferred with ice-chilled vodka, which was how I’d consume it in-country.

I already mentioned Matoke, as a speciality of Uganda. All I’ll add is that I was told it was reasons for automatic divorce if a wife could not make it well. Go, research it, if you disbelieve me. 🙂

Early visits to former Soviet Union countries brought a level of culinary shock that’s hard to explain. One of my early points of confusion was seeing people lining up, but not knowing for what; it turned out to be for bread (хлеб (chleb), in Russian) and no one knew how much was available, just that some would be. But in the early days, scarcity was the norm.

Russia, mid-1990s: We were in the food ‘Gulag’. So, it was common to have this exchange in a Moscow restaurant (excuse the attempted Russian accent; I could write it in cyrrilic, but 🙂 ):

“Vot would you like?” the waiter asked. I checked the menu, and ordered chicken. “No chicken.” I checked again, and saw ‘meat’, so ordered that. “No meat.” I’m patient, but… I asked what was available. “Potatoes and cabbage.” My eyes met his and rolled a lot. Those ingredients would be alright in borscht, but just alone on a plate? McDonald’s hadn’t yet opened. Time to get up and leave, with a smile. Socialism’s equality of opportunity is fine, if you must want the opportunity offered.

But, I’m a sucker for street food, and Africa hit the spot best, including Casablanca, Morocco, where I often took stopovers en route to Mauritania.

Or ‘fry fry’ in Freetown, Sierra Leone:

I love Asian food from the whole region, but never worked on the continent. The best I got was, oddly, a Korean restaurant in Conakry, Guinea, where we often went on Sunday evenings, for their mixed offering of Vietnamese food and Korean BBQ. Our daughter was less than 3 but that’s where she learned to use chopsticks 🙂

What about drink? What about it? Most countries have their local beers and I’m glad to try any. Having spent so many formative years in England, and enjoying dark, warmer beer, with little fizziness, I’d learned that most of the world like lager or Pilsner beers, with fizz. The best compromises were the dark beers of Germany and the fruit beers of Belgium. But, if I’m pushed, my favourite Pilsner, from work settings was Czech Budweiser.

Drinking it or wine while dining in a restaurant that’s in a cave in Prague—Svatá Klára? Magical.

But, without my business travels would I have known how much vodka I can drink and still walk straight and take good notes? What is the maximum number of toasts at a dinner? Would I have learned about the quality of Georgian brandy? Where would I have learned about Chibuku shake-shake? Would I have learned that Estonia’s Vana Tallinn is made from a base of Jamaican rum? Why does Latvia’s Riga Balsam taste so much like Ferrol Compound and are the medical benefits similar? I’

But, food is truly joyous with good company. I’ll never forget how my staff in Guinea greeted us on our reconnaissance and my assignment visits–with home-prepared dinners to carry through a few days. A better welcome has never been had.

In Guinea, we were good friends with the Japanese ambassador and his wife; their chef was excellently and scoured the fish markets daily for the best catches. Any invitation to dine at their residence was an automatic yes. His wife loved the traditional tea ceremony; so did we. Sushi was to die for. They were part of a group of 8 which we formed for tennis on Sunday mornings. The group was completed by a French couple and the British ambassador, our immediate neighbour. The French couple’s kids would babysit Rhian while we played. After, was potluck brunch at our house. Each brought something: pastries and sushi were constants. Brunch had no end time and often went past noon. That’s when my wife started the tradition of watching tennis grand slams with friends food and drink.

Finally, dining with ‘important’ people in informal settings is often the mark of good relationships.

  • Guyana’s president enjoying good curry while discussing budgets in his garden.
  • Discussing program issues with Estonia’s finance minister in a sauna with beer, pickled herrings and peanuts.
  • Saturday lunch at home, under the gazebo, with the French ambassador while she rocked our toddler on her knees.
  • Spending a evening sitting on the floor having dinner with Mauritania’s central bank governor, with jazz playing in the background.

The details of the meetings? Not important now. The memories? Timeless.

Hiding from our history, Jamaica? Musings after lunch at Lillian’s

They hide in plain sight; some cared for, but little known and understood, others neglected and almost forgotten.

Lillian’s Restaurant

I wont pretend that the slavery origins of this country don’t contain many painful memories, but history wont change by ignoring it.

For example, take the lovely, quaint building that now hosts a restaurant, Lillian’s, at the University of Technology. It’s housed in what was reportedly an overseer’s house, on the former Mona Sugar Estate. It now gives students of hospitality and hotel business a workplace to develop their skills. Yes, it has the accolade of being protected as part of the National Heritage Trust. But, what of its origins and its history? Should it just stay there in relative blissful anonymity?

View from restaurant onto UTech campus

We can always argue that more important topics are there to be discussed or fought over. But, each day that passes pushes hidden knowledge further away.

With no criticism for anyone involved, I imagine what it would be like if visitors and nationals alike knew of the rich history that sits in that unprepossessing area that leads up to the urban mess that is Papine.

Yes, the archiologists have been watching over the developments going on at the university sites, and trying to figure out what and whom the bones represent. Yes, it would be a wonderful thing to have a separate exhibit on one of the sites of higher learning as testimony to those who went before and made now possible.

In general, Jamaica has not seen its history as part of its offerings to the world. One bumps into it, incidentally, and very specifically, as with Port Royal, Devon House, and Rose Hall as notable examples. But, we utter little about Sligoville, the abused beauty of Spanish Town, the many features that dot the landscape, like parts of sugar mills, and marked slave graveyards.

Do we love ourselves enough to care about that?

Eat me out of something

A few days ago, I wrote a post, entitled ‘Jamaicans are selfish and often rewarded for it‘. My main point was that ‘Driven by the urge to be selfish, people act in a way that gives them what they want, and really do not anticipate negative consequences, in part, because they rarely come into play.’ But, I also find that the unanticipated negative consequences are often not seen as the fault of those who acted selfishly, but due to some other factor, such as the ‘wickedness’ of other people, or ‘just how the big people act’. Jamaica is little stories.

Yesterday, I was trying my best to get a small white ball into a hole a little bigger than it. I wanted to do this so badly that I agreed with a friend to go out at 6am with him and his daughter. Actually, she had to go to a class just after 10, so this was a good way to achieve that and avoid doing the little bally thing afternoon, when the heat is likely to be high. Contrary to the usual pattern, we were met with sheet lightning, and went out gingerly. It was a nice walk, not totally spoiled for my friend and me, and certainly not spoiled for his daughter, who hits the ball miles. We finished in good time and they went off to class. I hung around the scoring area and had some refreshments and chatted with a few other people who were milling around. I then went home to cool off and change and get ready to go back for lunch, which was included in the tournament entrance fee.

Back I went for my lunch, and it was worth the effort. I waited for friends who had started later, and when they arrived, I recommend they have the lunch. They did, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Other players came in and ordered their meals, and they came…for some. The dreaded had happened. The food had run out! What!? How could that be?

Well, the answer’s not that complicated. Many Jamaicans, including golfers, won’t commit to an event in advance, and expect to still be able to express their interest at the last moment, without disappointment. So, if you have parties, or entertainment events, where people are encouraged to reply early whether or not they will attend, replies are often late or not at all. People then arrive at ‘the gate’, expecting to enter and have a good time. Often, a good time is had by the patrons. But, the organisers have a nightmare.

In this case, it’s quite normal for a caterer, without firm numbers of people to serve, will err on the side of caution, assume a number like 50, and prepare accordingly. At the worst, they may figure, you will have people who don’t want the food, or people who will  be happy with any food (even if not the gourmet offering). That’s manageable, and avoid waste of higher costs ingredients. So, it was. The lucky ones, like me, ate Spanish rice, curried goat, baked barbecued chicken, salad and a slice of pear.
image

The less lucky ones got a burger and fries, with a piece of lettuce and tomato. Let’s not ask how they enjoyed that.

But, rather than see the fault for this in themselves, what do some Jamaicans do? They look to blame someone else. It just so happens that yesterday was the funeral of former Minister of Agriculture, Roger Clarke. In no time, word was that the food meant for the golfers’ lunch had been diverted to the funeral reception. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but in the world of rumours, that was a plausible one. It may be better to feed hungry mourners than a bunch of good-for-nothing golfers.

We may not be unique in this behaviour, but we add a certain flourish.

Coin toss time: Brazil 2014

This is the week–June 12, to be precise. Kick off for the Brazil 2014 World Cup. These events have become mired in stinky, sticky stuff for many years. I don’t follow that very closely, but glance at much of it. What has been hitting the fan and spraying off onto walls and neatly pressed clothes?

Cameroon were in a spat about bonus pay, so were refusing to travel to Brazil. Well, a fool would have known that would not last long. However, it was resolved, Samuel Eto’o was not going to pass up a last chance to show his Chelsea team boss that age ain’t nothing but a number.

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Eto’o was too funny after his age was questioned by his club coach.

The players settled their dispute with the government and Fecafoot (the national federation), and will receive 5.8m CFA francs (about US$ 12,000) more than the 50m CFA francs originally offered to each player for their participation in the tournament. The federation had to borrow the funds privately to pay the bonuses, pending money from FIFA months after the tournament.

Cameroon’s coach, Volker Finke, must be thinking what next? Anyway, the lads headed off to Brazil and are already happily snapping selfies on their smartphones.

Lots of teams played friendly matches to warm up for La Mondiale. Jamaica got a face planting by France in Lille on Sunday, 8-0. The Jamaican newspapers were full of guff, talking about ‘humiliation’, as if Jamaica, who made it to the big dance in 1998, in France, were in the same league as les Blues, who won the World Cup that year. Really? Jamaica limped in last in their group qualifying, and didn’t register a win: that was humiliation, not being beaten badly by the likes of France.

But, Italy did the strangest thing, playing against a top Brazilian club side, Fluminese, and winning 5-3. We were treated to Mario Balotelli sporting two different coloured football shoes, along with another haircut.

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Mario ‘two coloured shoes’ Balotelli, keeps his hair on while playing Fluminese.

But, wasn’t that playing with fire? What if the local team had been on the phone with Brazil’s coach, ‘Big Phil’ Scolari: “So, which of them do you want seriously hurt, and which ones just banged up?” Italy’s coach, Prandelli, might have had a few players looking like chopped salami in a deli. Maybe, I’m just an old, cynical player, but my mouth would have been watering at the prospect doing ‘my part’ for my country. 🙂

Finally, for now, two points. First, teams have moved a long way in preparing for matches. England have done extensive preparatory work. This included team players being given iPads that contain a Brazil 2014 scouting app specially developed by the Football Association and tailored for each member of the squad’s needs. Makes you wonder: Candy Crushing Italy, before the first game.

What about nutritional preparations for the World Cup? Reports suggested fans would find local food will be much more expensive than usual. An app, Ju$to, has been created that allows price comparisons. I thought I would travel with some popular fare from Jamaica. Patties? Grace prepared meals? No, bully beef, produce of…Brazil. Well, here’s how it may be made into something very appealing.

Meat me at the corner

Roger Clarke, Minister of Agriculture, is one of my favourite Jamaican politicians. He is a man seemingly made for the role he has to play. He’s jocular and rotund, and seems to me to be the very image of ‘Jolly Roger’. He often gives the impression of being a little bumbling, but he knows his onions. I get the impression, however, that he’s struggling to carry the country to market with him. Maybe, that’s because he was twerking while the PM was working. I’m not sure.

Fool the farmer? Never!
Fool the farmer? Never!

Jamaica has a whopping food import bill–let’s call it US$1billion. We have been urged to eat into that, and for a decade we have had the Eat Jamaica campaign, with its motto ‘grow what we eat and eat what we grow’. Much as I love to eat Jamaican food, I keep getting shocked by the fact that what I think is Jamaican is foreign.

Minister Clarke urged us to belly up and eat more pork. It was in plentiful supply, I heard him say on the radio about 10 days ago. Today, I see Roger’s telling me another indigestible fact: “We are self-sufficient in pork and in poultry, but we import a lot of mutton. We eat a lot of curry goat, but some 80 per cent of the goat meat we eat is imported.” You’re kidding!

Thankfully, it’s meatless Monday for me, so I wont add to my newly discovered misery and have to stomach a plate of foreign goat. More sheep and goats are to be reared, and a project (in year two) to raise the levels of local goat meat is at 50 percent of the required level; the rest should be complete by month-end.

I see goats running in the roads every day and have the impression that we are in danger of seeing them run the country and ramming through their policy choices, instead of the current crop of politicians. Images of Animal Farm suddenly come flooding back into my mind. All the talk of ‘pork barrel’ politics.animal-farm1 The idea of politicians with their noses in the trough all seem to take on a hideous reality.

Jamaica is an agricultural country, yet we seem to have betrayed that characteristic and fallen foul of the dreaded cheaper imported foods. Roger is trying to get us back to the land and to take back our land.

Kingston was all-a-flutter a few weeks ago with a stunning new trend. Actually, not Kingston, but New Kingston–haven of the office and the pristine coffee shop. Maggi brought a farmers market there. The bush was being brought to the stush–a little plug for Stush in the Bush :-). Everything ‘sell off’ by 11am. Wonderful! I hope the vendors in Coronation Market were not too miffed. Maybe, the solution is to bus groups of office workers from their suites to the stalls there a few days a week. That would put a crimp in the lives of the so-called extortionists in downtown Kingston, who prey on people wanting to park cars nearby when they seek their home-grown fare.

I know a few growers in Jamaica, some are old-thymers, some are new. Some are in the furnace of St. Elizabeth, some are in the cool hills of St. Andrew and Portland. They all work like mad people. They never seem unable to meet needs. Some even bring produce to the home, from the hills. I’ve taken to going to market, like my father used to. I’m not good at picking out yam and sweet potatoes, or knowing the best soursop, but I get by. I noticed some months ago that all the garlic was from China. I had a long talk with the vendor about why we cannot produce garlic locally. We hear all the time about the health benefits of this bulb, but the light has gone out in terms of our share of the market.

I’ve tried a little–very little–market gardening in my yard; the house is rented, but I’m reconfiguring little by little. Friends of mine in other islands regale me with pictures of how they have raised tomatoes, sweet peppers, aubergines, and more over the past year. Yeah!

The problem of growing enough to feed ourselves in not new in Jamaica, and it’s not the fault of any one person. Things were not helped by our push into tourism, where the links between the stomach of the foreigner and the breadbasket of Jamaica were too thin. We have a great food processing company, Grace Kennedy, which is now pushing Jamaican products into west Africa. I saw adverts yesterday for frozen Jamaican meals. I hope that they are all or mainly sourced with local inputs.

I read last week some online anger at St. Mary’s, who make banana and plantain chips. The packages show ‘produce of Dominican Republic’. Horror! The company tried to explain that local bananas were hit hard by recent hurricanes (again) are not always available, but they have a plant in the DR, which they use to fill their needs–aka our bellies. Now, the local, native, Irie brand, Chippies, needs to push itself more into our faces–and improve that packaging.

What about those people selling Jamaica Producer bananas on the roads? They are local, right?

So, it’s for each of us to do our part. Eat what we grow and help grow what we eat.

Cooking up stories

A few days ago, I wrote that we could get a lot of Jamaican history recorded if everyone who has the ability to record the actions and words of someone from an older generation did so. Jamaica is full of story tellers. I heard about a school in the Blue Mountains portion of the parish of Portland that was creating its own oral history bank by having older citizens come to the school and tell stories, which were then recorded on an electronic tablet. But, stories are all around us, if we just listen.

Last night, we were invited to share curried chicken and rotis with a group of teachers and their friends and family. It was a must-accept invitation. My little fish-daughter was swimming in the Karl Dalhouse swim meet at the National Aquatic Centre, which began at 5pm. The dinner seemed like the ideal end to her evening and excellent preparation for a weekend full of races. After her race last night, she and her mother headed home while I continued time keeping for a while.

As luck would have it, though we left 30 minutes apart, we arrived at the gate of the residence at the same time. I went behind my wife’s car and said to the guard that I was going to the same place as she was. Then I saw my wife turn her car around and start to head out of the complex. She told me that the guard said that we needed to find the residence on another side of the complex. Off she went. I was a boy scout, so I got out my phone and called our host–who had told me that she lived just down the street from us. Yes, I was in the right place and in seconds I could see her waving as we talked on the phone. I called my wife and told her to high-tail it back.

Our host had her mother visiting from the countryside, which was a pleasant surprise. We went through the usual introductions and settled into relaxing. Little by little the stories started to flow.

My wife had found out that a relative of our host’s husband was also a relative of hers in The Bahamas. Small coincidence? The relative was due to join us for dinner.

I started sharing stories about how we had found related people as members of the swimming club that my daughter had joined in Kingston. We felt like family with that team and were even happier to be part of it. More coincidences?

One of the guests asked me about my writing, and I gave him a little insight into what it tries to be and why I write. Then, our host told us that her mother was a mystery writer who got paid for what she does. Her mother, who was born in England, had married a Jamaican, and lived on the island for over 40 years, explained that she could not tell us about her writing, done under a pseudonym. her daughter had never read any of these mysterious works. How intriguing.

The appetizer arrived and we tucked into a tasty salad made with cabbage (grown at the school) and salt fish, which went well with crackers. Our host’s mother had made it. We were in danger of spoiling our appetites as we ladled heap of the salad onto biscuits. We talked about some of the exotic dishes that were popular in Jamaica. One of my favourites, curried tripe and broad beans, had its lovers and its haters. We talked about eating braised liver and bananas. We reminisced about living in England and going to the butcher to get the cuts of meat we wanted, not pre-packaged as was common in the USA. I love of braised kidneys with port and talked about times when I used to live in Wales and would get a present of a pack of meat of sausages from the local butcher whenever the local football team, for which I played, won at the weekend.

The roti cooker realised the danger, so moved quickly to intervene and place his signature dishes in front of us. Out came the dish of curry and alongside a plate full of ‘buss-up-shut’. No more invitations needed. We all tried to be polite as we hastily grabbed at our makings of our dinners. This food is best eaten with the hands, and preferably in clothes that don’t show curry stains.

Buss-up-shut
Buss-up-shut

Within minutes, conversation had slowed as eating took over.

As the evening went on, we were joined by some more guests and the evening rolled on. This is a regular gathering and we were glad to be part of it.

We talked about devoted parents who spent their weekends watching and supporting their children 🙂 We talked about living in England. We talked about enjoying travelling around Jamaica’s countryside and enjoying what it offered. I described my recent trip to Mandeville and the pleasure of coming back to Kingston with a car laden down with produce: a trunk full of bananas and yam and a car caked in mud were signs of a good trip.

We were asked, after a good rest, if we were ready for dessert. Silly question. Lychee cake was being offered. My wife asked from where the fruit had come, and several of us explained that Jamaica produces plenty of the fruit, including in my father’s yard. We were well-behaved as plates with hefty slices of cake were passed around. Again, conversation slowed down.

My daughter left with her mother soon after 9pm so that she could get a good night sleep. Reluctant, of course, to leave the company of some adults who were enjoying her company.

The rest of us settled comfortably into a round of stories. We talked about nicknames–a staple of Jamaican life. How do you get a name ‘Clock’? Have one arm shorter than the other.

The funniest stories were about attending the ‘wrong’ Nine Nights. It’s a great piece of Jamaica’s culture that deaths are celebrated and the party atmosphere of a ‘set up’ is something that many Jamaicans enjoy. From what we heard, these have now become more festive, with ‘ban’s’ being part of the events, and even some ‘winding up’.

Nine Nights celebration
Nine Nights celebration

We heard that our host and friends had gone to pay respects to the family of a grandmother, only for find that in the a settlement of some 1500 people, there happened to be two such celebrations going on at the same time. Just their luck to walk into the wrong one. Still, walking with bottles of rum and ready for manish water and curried goat, they boldly waltzed into the mingle. Why be surprised that no one was coming up to you and talking? Well, it’s because you’re at the wrong place! Eventually, they found their way to the right place and got into the revelry they had been awaiting. Singing, dancing, drinking, praying. I hoped that the group of Nine Night chasers would give a sample of their singing routine, which I heard ranged from Gospel, through Soca. We rolled around as we imagined this wandering band of duppy watchers.

I was fading, after a long day of activity and I needed to get my sleep, too, with a day on a swim deck awaiting me. We hugged and kissed and wished each other a good weekend, as I headed home.

Another friend, with whom I’d played golf earlier in the day, had mentioned to me that every Friday he gets a lot of Parrot fish and has a good ‘fish feed’ at his house; Saturday is soup day. Jamaicans (and other Caribbeans) love to get together and just lime (as the Trinis call it)–just hang out with each other. Food and drink, as the world over, make the gathering so much better. 

My story-telling idea has its place, but clearly, we thrive on being able to share our lives with others, not only by being together physically, but also from airing our experiences. We get to know a little more about each other that way. Doors open. Doors close. Chapters start. Chapters end. We never know how we will intercept each other’s lives, but a good beginning comes from telling a little tale.

 

 

Jamaica, land we love

Jamaica is known as the land of many things. In our most romantic moments, we talk about the land of wood and water. If I were to be in a cynical mood–and it does take me, sometimes–I might say that it’s the land of ‘would’ and ‘wait here’, as in ‘Wait here, would you, I’ll go check in the back…” Living in Kingston, I also know it as the land of wood clogging up the water in the gullies.

We love studies, especially expensive ones done by foreign consultants who are very expensive. We love them even more when they tell us things that locals have known for years, but did not have written for them in glossy, bound reports. Last week, Jamaica started down the road of another of its characteristics–the land of nine-day wonders. People got excited and upset about the correlations in a study of crime and education. Criminals went to schools (admittedly, many of them did badly there), so schools must be remedied. I bet all of them went to the bathroom too, so I hope no one will come to our houses and rip out our toilets. Hot on its heels, I hear that a number of other studies are likely to be launched in recent weeks.

One study of a stratified sample of prison inmates shows that the last meal most (67 percent) of them ate was a beef patty. Many others (25 percent) had eaten chicken foot soup; while the rest had eaten a variety of other things. The correlation coefficient was over 95 percent and the margin of error was just 2 percent–whatever all of that means. The government will now be looking to deal with the issue of what breeds criminals by regulating what patty shops sell.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA These will be ‘refurbished’ so that only soy or callaloo patties are sold, knowing that the consumption of red meat is related to an upsuge of anger (not forgetting its harmful health effects in terms of heart disease). So, in one bite the government will eradicate crime and improve national health. Chicken patties will soon be for the chopping block, too, as they have been suspected of being behind the spread of salmonella outbreaks. Three cheers for the government!

Jamaica has a place named the ‘Land of look behind‘. This could easily have become the nation’s capital, not least because it fits well the people’s real nature of being ‘difficult and inhospitable’. That is a finding in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, so it’s almost as good as if it were from Wikipedia. I side with that interpretation, because it helps me understand why it is that some commentators marvel at what Jamaicans do to make it through each day.

Jamaicans are nothing if not creative about the obvious. Yesterday’s papers included a few articles about extortion. The kind of thing that was featured was how people are offering ‘parking’ near the US Embassy in Kingston for the many applicants who go there trying to get visas. Jamaica’s not like the USA or UK, where parking illegally will get your car clamped; it may be towed, occasionally. But, people like to park cars where they think it’s convenient–usually, just for them, despite obvious inconvenience to others. In rural areas, parking on blind corners, or the crest of a hill, are common tricks. In town, parking on sidewalks or driveways, or alleys is common. Good parking means good blocking of someone else, and if it means double parking then that’s double fun.

I digress. Some youths take people’s money, park their cars, sometimes wash them for another fee, make sure the cars are safe for the persons while they spend a few hours with Auntie Samantha hoping to get a pass to the Promised Land. But, this piece of entrepreneurship is scorned. Jamaicans call it ‘hustling’ or ‘exaction’. It seems, in good look-behind fashion, that we’d prefer if the young people sat on street corners, smoking and drinking and just being good and idle–having been prepared for that by schools (we know). We’ve 40 percent unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds, so let’s get that figure up above 50 percent. We can do it!

Of course, we don’t have the snazzy parking lots that festoon many American cities, where people can park their cars, have them broken into, be mugged or molested, or engage in illicit information exchanges under cover of darkness. We have that to look forward to. Of course, because the US Embassy offers no parking and nowhere in the area was designated as public parking for the many applicants, we’d prefer it if people drove around for many minutes, searching for parking, missing their appoitments, getting visa rejections, and having to go through the process again after the lapse of some months. Progress is only hard if you try to make it.

Jamaica is also the land of “In God we trust”. It must be so. Last week, we read about police ‘death squads’. Yesterday, I read that 60 percent of those arrested for corruption are police officers. How else could I go forward with the exhortation I saw in the press to “Help Cops End Extortion“? Look, if the love of statistical analysis has taught us nothing, we should be able to understand the spiral unlogic of asking us to help the police-crooks to be uncrooked. As many Jamaicans suspect, the ‘brains’ behind many schemes happen to be people who are supposed to be upholders of the law. Would you sit down with a crocodile and share a plate of grilled ribs?

Stones set to mark parking spots, for which payment will be 'requested' (courtesy of The Gleaner)
Stones set to mark parking spots, for which payment will be ‘requested’ (courtesy of The Gleaner)

Touching our sensibilities

The image that we have of any place and its people is built up from the little pieces that we see of them over time. Sometimes, we get only one view, and our image is cemented.

When I move around Jamaica, I try to see as much as I can, knowing that I’ve only glimpsed parts of the whole. With no clear conclusion to be drawn, it’s sometimes all I can do to share the images. I take a lot of pictures of every day activities to help my memory. Sometimes, I cannot record visual images and have to rely on my memory of sounds, tastes, and incidents. Sharing that is sometimes all I can do.

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The boy who did not cry wolf. A few days ago, my daughter was at the National Aquatic Centre in Kingston for one of her regular practice sessions. A boy came into the office, where I happened to be standing. He was holding his goggles and trying to say something, but it was muffled by his sobbing. His eyes were filled with tears. I asked him what was wrong. “I have a cramp, sir,” he told me, “But coach did not believe me. he said I was a liar. I’m not lying, sir.” A lady in the office asked him for which club he swam, and he told her. I took a look at his leg. It was stiff, as if the hamstring had pulled. As I tried to move the leg, the boy screeched in pain. I eased the leg a little to see if the knee was damaged. He yelled. I sat him down and told him to relax. The lady asked the boy for a parent’s number. He gave his mother’s work number, then made a call. “No, Mummy. I’m not lying!” the boy said, through muffled tears. The lady in the office took the phone and spoke to the boy’s mother. She tried to explain what had happened and that the boy was in pain and distress. From what I heard, the mother was not having any of that. However, the office lady said the boy would be in the office for the next hour or so, till he was collected. The office lady then went to speak to the boy’s coach. Suffice to say, she went back the office. The coach never moved. When my daughter had finished her session, I went to the office to see if the boy was still there. He had just left, I was told. Make of all that what you will.

Directions, anyone? People have a lot of fun mocking the way that Jamaicans give directions.

It’s the result of living in a rural society that often has things that don’t change too fast. I was just on the phone with a man with whom I’m due to partner tomorrow in a golf tournament. We’ve never met, and were planning to hit some balls together today. However, he decided to get a jump-start and make the trip today, instead of tomorrow morning. I told him I was not sure about where I needed to go, but would look it up on the Internet. “It’s easy man. Once you go into the town, you’re going to go past a gas station. Look for the fruit vendor, then turn right,” he told me. “Ask anyone, you can’t get lost.” That was a shorter version, but you get the gist. Let’s hope the vendor is not having his day at home, tomorrow.

Home delivery. A friend was very excited when he found out that I really enjoy Jamaican country food–yam, bananas, dumplings, callaloo, salt mackerel, etc. “Next time, my house keeper prepares something, I’ll call you,” he promised. The next day, he sent me a picture with the message “Yours is waiting”. I replied that I would pick mine up later, and if I did not have it for lunch then the next day’s breakfast was set. I set off for my school pickup; he lives adjacent to the school. When I near to his house, I saw his son on the road with a cell phone. He hailed me. I got to the house and my friend asked if I liked curry. I told him yes. He was waiting for some to be delivered and I could grab a bite, too. Meantime, my salt mackerel ‘breakfast’ was packed for me. “What?” I heard my friend shout. “Where? You’re joking!” He then told me that the food delivery man had gotten a puncture and his son was trying to locate where he was–hence, the boy walking with the phone. We figured out where the delivery man was; it was not far. I suggested, I take my friend to find his food, and we jumped in my car. We drove about half a mile and there was the delivery man–so near, but yet so far–on the roadside, with his bike parked and his food box ready for more deliveries. But, no chance of doing that till he got help.MobyDickG20100615CH We collected our food and paid the guy. I have to say the curry goat was a knockout, with some really nice roti. It’s from a restaurant called Moby Dick, in downtown Kingston, which I understand is famous, and been around since 1900.

The heart beat of Caribbean Christmas: joy and pain

A Caribbean Christmas presents some problems that don’t exist everywhere.

Many people head to church on Christmas Eve, late at night, knowing that they are going to be up way past the time when Santa comes calling at their homes. They go to what’s called ‘midnight mass’, starting at 10.30 pm, with the service just getting going when Christmas Day starts. This is the season of ‘The Sermon to end all sermons’. The theme has to be big, and bring them all to the knees begging forgiveness before they head home to see what The Bearded One has dropped under the tree. “Slackness” was a familiar theme some years ago–girls in skirts up to their necks; boys in pants down around their ankles; rude people doing bad things and thinking that a day on their knees would atone; stealing; lying; sweethearting. Bring on the Seven Deadly Sins and let’s add a few.pieter_bruegel_the_elder-_the_seven_deadly_sins_or_the_seven_vices_-_avarice

Then, people head home in the deep of night, and have to wake up on Christmas morning to a houseful of screaming children.

“What did Santa bring?” Rip, tear, shred.

“Oooh!”

‘Yeah!”

“Is that all I get?”

“That’s not what I wanted?”

“I got that last year!”

The mixed feelings that are Christmas are beginning to show early in the day. Happiness is only a smile away from fearful rows.

“Why did they have to use so much incense? Think about the asthmatics.”

“It’s time you all cut down on these services. Tooooo looooong!”

“You leave our services alone. We’re the only godly ones left.”

“I blame it on the government.”

“At least we got a government now. Your lot, took all the money and left us all with nothing to show. Bunch o’ crooks.”

The families sit and eat a hearty breakfast and love each other long enough to not bite off each other’s ears. I always like Christmas breakfast. It’s seasonally traditional: ham and eggs; coconut bread; raisin bread; special Christmas brews of teas and coffees; sorrel. Some like a little liquor early. “Boy, bring me that rum!” Grandpa needs to be kept happy.

The energy used up opening gifts is not much but it goes fast if you’ve had little sleep. Tuck in!

Men often get saddled with chores soon after if not before.

“Honey, can you assemble the bike, Robbie got? You know, I’m no good with those instructions…”

Hours later, Honey is still looking for grommet A to fit onto spindle 2. Robbie has gone back to playing with the empty box in which a new train came.

“Dearest, the kids want to try out their new i-whatevers. Just set up the modem and router for them. I can’t figure out those electronic doohickeys.”

Hours later…

“I get three green lights, and I see the connection, but still no Internet…Am I connected at your end?”

The kids have gone outside to play with rocks and just broke the neighbour’s window.

“Sorry, Mr. McFarlane. Daddy will come to fix it in a minute. Merry Christmas!”

We’re not yet at noon and moods are beginning to fray. We have three hours to go till dinner with the family. How many people will be there? “I hear about a hundred.”

Time to head to beds and take a nap. The day is hard in the land of the baking midday sun. The cool breeze of the morning has already given way to a rising heat. “It’s so hot!” Soon, silence reigns. For a few hours, calm will prevail. Energies restored and ready for the real fray. The arguments over Christmas dinner can be fierce. In The Bahamas, a peculiar ritual starts to shape up as people pre-position themselves for the coming Junkanoo parade.

“Who’s going to win?”

“Only one group in it, man.” Saxons. Valley. One Family. Roots.

“What’s the best theme?”

“What song Sting got out this year?”

Why they start Junkanoo so late? [After midnight.]

“The weather’s looking inclement. Better put the parade back a few hours. Start at 3 in the morning. Makes sense.”

“Those judges. All of them crooked, eh. They’re going to rob us, again.”

“Ain’t crooked. You-all don’t have any music; can’t dance. When you start practice? Last night? Cha!”

Dinner hasn’t even been served yet and the ripples are beginning. Blood won’t flow and voice will only rise a few decibels. Blows won’t be struck, but tongues will lash. But, the focus shifts as the smells become stronger from the kitchen and the clatter of dishes and trays start to compete with the voices.

“Oooh! Look at the turkey! Wow! That ham has a glaze, eh!”

“Where’s the peas and rice? Macaroni coming?”

“Baked beans coming? I hope so.”

Let your meat stop your mouth!

For the love of our children

My heart grieves when I see what some parents are allowing their children to do, and often with adult consent, encouragement and funding, in public. This week, I saw children enjoying the last days of summer holidays, doing something that made my blood boil. A boy and girl were seated on a shady bench. The boy reached out to the girl and offered her a bite of his lunch. She smiled shyly then opened her mouth and closed her eyes. He pushed the sandwich towards her lips. Her mouth opened slowly and in one savage bite, she took half of it. As her mouth worked I could hear her moaning in delight. Could a hamburger be so good?

Modern Jamaican children have been led down a devilish path of foreign influences, which threaten to stifle our little island’s great culinary culture. When I drove a family friend around Kingston early this afternoon, she told me a story about how her mother had worked as a cook at King’s House. She recalled how she’d been sent to Constant Spring Market to buy cow skin so that it could be boiled to make gelatin and then have colouring added to it to make home-made jelly. I laughed. My grandmother had also worked as a cook and I had never come across this gem.

But, have we been swept up by the waves of industrial progress and forgotten what we owe to the next generation? I loved it when two third grader children with Jamaican-Bahamian parents, born and raised in the USA, said boldly to their class mates in the US that they loved turkey neck most in Thanksgiving dinner, NOT mashed potatoes and gravy. Hail, parents and grandparents!

This morning, I met a class mate of my daughter’s here in Jamaica and asked what she’d had for breakfast. “Breadfruit and bacon,” she told me, proudly. So, it should be. This week, I’ve fed my daughter a steady diet of porridge before going to school–not oats, but hominy and cornmeal. I can embrace progress with this seeming backward gesture, because Jamaican food manufacturers now produce good versions of these staples that take less time to boil at home. It’s no big deal for me to make separate servings of different porridges. I’ve a cupboard loaded now with peanut, plantain, hominy and cornmeal porridges. Come, Mister Hurricane, if you bad!

My wife’s also gone a bit retro and bought an ice cream churn so that we can spend weekend afternoons making homemade ice cream. So far, mango and soursop have been dished up and were hoping that the guests who enjoyed it with us will soon pack up and leave. Two weeks’ stay over from a Sunday lunch is a little, forward, no?

I’m not someone filled with crazy nationalistic notions. I don’t think that all children need to spend 6 weeks in the country areas each year with grandparents or family members who farm or fish. But, talking about nights spent walking through the bush with a fire-stick or no light, feeling your way to your destination, makes me think that the modern generation is in danger of turning into a bunch of soft people. A friend just told me a story of two men walking through the bushes one night and they came to a river. One man, who knew the area, said to his visitor friend “Just jump!” He leapt and waited for his friend to follow. His friend summoned up courage and jumped. He landed on a slippery rock but kept his balance and stood on dry land. His friend then pulled out a lighter and set fire to some twigs, and they both looked down to see a raging torrent of water that was about 8 feet wide and about 30 feet below them. “Just jump? You mad!” said the visitor.

You don’t need zip lines for adventures. Go to the river and catch crayfish. Try taking a herd of cattle to the pasture. Milk cows. Fetch water. Collect logwood. I’m sure I can sign my child up for some ‘adventure’ activities at a camp, but I like simple.

This week, I decided to be firmer in my efforts to stop this slide down a slippery slope to ‘I’m a getting’ lost. I introduced my daughter to some essentials of life. Others may not agree on their relative importance but I’m not going to stay friends with anyone who thinks these things are not essential. Here’s a list of things I made sure she experienced this week:
*How to eat piping hot cornmeal or hominy porridge with chunks of hardo bread dropped in (I concede that Excelsior crackers work great, too). [As a friend reminded me, whole wheat bread has no place being near porridge.]
*Drinking a water coconut from the shell, without a straw.
*Eating soft coconut jelly with a sprinkling of brown sugar. (She’s even made her own variations, leaving some water in the coconut so that the sugar starts to dissolve a little into syrup. Children are inventive.)
*Ackee and salt fish on water crackers. (Water crackers make many a snack excellent.)
*Eating a slice of hardo bread with condensed milk. (She’s young, so I did not introduce her to the full sandwich.)

Her life changed forever when she tasted the bread and sweetened milk. Blame me!

Some of these things are part of the ‘inside secrets’ of Jamaican life. We eat patty and coco bread. Don’t listen to foolish talk about “too much starch”! We eat corn soup. All hot drinks are ‘tea’. Ah so we dweet!

Driving through Faith Pen last week, it was a given in my daughter’s mind, newbie though she is–to stop for roast yam and salt fish–and the fish was SALTY.

Though some of these tasty treats may owe their origins to poverty and hard times that some may want to forget, they’re very much a part of who we are. Bulla and pear, anyone?

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