Contrasting views: all roads lead to Rio

Our journey back to Jamaica yesterday began with a taxi ride to Gatwick Airport, from the East End of London. Our driver was born in the Isle of Dogs, once in the heart of the London dockyards and part of the new wave of gentrification and new development. We talked about how the area had changed over the past 20 years. Much of London never had the ‘benefit’ of being destroyed during the Second World War, so massive redevelopment was always hard to do. The decline of the docks opened the way for a new wave of redevelopment, and it was spurred by the area being adjacent to a major financial centre. Many East Enders had been moving further east for years, and that process continued with the added pressure of new money and social groups wanting to move in. In a few words, the East End has become posh. Places with names such as ‘Leg of Mutton Lane Lane’ and ‘Westferry Road’ had real meaning.

The driver and I talked about how the area had changed physically. He mentioned that he had a book that looked at 500 years of the area’s history, its physical, social and economic make-up. I had been thinking that a great use of technology would be to make an overlay map that showed just that for any area. I had studied for years in the area and commented that I could barely make out where I was except for the trees; almost everything had changed. But, that is what progress means these days. We looked at the tall glass buildings, the wide streets, the fancy signs for new financial and commercial activities; men in suits and women in fashionable dresses–a far cry from the clothes of dock workers and their relatives. I thought of Jamaica, and Kingston’s downtown: progress had passed it by. People now flooded into the East End, after decades of people wanting mainly to flee the area. We continued to the motorway, and I thought about how improved transport links had made this side of London very dynamic: new rail links, new roads, a new small airport, London City Airport. That is what transformation meant.

East London transformed
East London transformed

We got to Gatwick and headed to check-in. (London’s airports are well served by public transport, and a train service runs every 15 minutes to this airport, to the south, but getting there from the east is trickier, so the roads are often quicker.) We completed the necessaries and sat to cool out in the lounge. Two ladies headed to Jamaica sat opposite us. They first felt miffed that they had not realised that showers and a spa were in the area. “It’s provided by the airport. I wouldn’t have bothered to bathe,” one said. I smiled and told her that it was BA who provided the service, and it’s common for them. She and her friend continued with their breakfasts, as did we.

“Glastonbury! Why do people want to go there, camping? That’s nasty!” My ears bristled. I asked her why she thought camping was nasty (remembering that she’d been prepared to go unbathed to the airport, moments ago). She explained it had to do with having to sleep on the ground. I asked her about her family background, and we had a discussion about life in Jamaica. She’d been born in England and never grew up in Jamaica. I explained that living with a dirt floor was common in Jamaica, and still is the norm in many places. She was not convinced that lying on vinyl would make it not nasty. I teased her more. She really did not like much to do with nature. She would go into the mountains in Jamaica only if she could get everywhere by car; walking was out of the question. I suggested taking a mule: she thought that was cruel 🙂 I suggested she talk to her mother about life in rural Jamaica. We continued and I asked how she’d feel about taking a walk up the Blue Mountains to the coffee fields. Again, she was fine if she could go on wheels. I shook my head. She rounded herself out by explaining how she’d bought Blue Mountain coffee on a previous trip to Jamaica, but had no idea what to do with the ‘granules’. She’d put them into a cup and they were “just swimming around”. She’d given the coffee away. I explained how to brew fresh coffee. The lights that went off in her head were very bright. MY daughter could barely suppress her giggles. She told the lady about staying at Strawberry Hill and going up further to Holywell.

Holywell: too natural; too challenging
Holywell: too natural; too challenging

The idea of staying in the National Park was daunting for her. We almost closed the case. We left them to visualise their trip to Negril and Montego Bay. My daughter could not resist telling the lady and her friend (whose roots were from Ghana) about the dangers of being in the sea, and what some people feel happy to do in the water. Some of that is truly nasty, she pointed out. She is my child! I suggested to the ladies to be less afraid of what nature has to offer.

We headed to the departure gate a little while after, and boarded with little fuss. We then sat on the tarmac for over an hour as ‘ground services’ fouled up, including having no bags loaded. We relaxed and start watching some films. We eventually got flying about 90 minutes late. The already long scheduled flight was already tiring us out. But, what to do? We settled in for a long session of movies.

I asked my daughter along the way how she’d enjoyed her trip to Europe. Very much, she said, but could not wait to get back to Jamaica. She was thinking about sleeping in her own bed and having her own dog chewing her feet, not other people’s pets doing that. She thought about the food she liked: fish and chips were very good, but… We enjoyed our long flight. We did not enjoy the long wait for bags, and I thought back to the problems in London, wondering if all had gone well with the loading. After about 40 minutes our bags arrived, and we cleared Customs fast and headed out to meet the wife/mother. She happened to be standing next to one of her ‘friends’, a government minister, and we exchanged a few stories about our trip, before leaving him to wait for his family. It was very funny once we exited Norman Manley International Airport that my daughter’s eyes were struck by all  of Jamaica that she had missed: the views of mountains, the breezes off the sea, the goats in the road, the trash on the road side, men standing in the middle of the road begging, potholes. “It’s so nice to be back,” she said. Within minutes, we saw a car accident, with a small JPS car against a broken light pole. The irony of that struck us all. “Maybe, the driver was hurrying to cut off someone,” my wife quipped. She tried to figure out how the car had wrapped itself against the pole. We were back home.

We got home relatively quickly. My daughter was shocked to see her puppy, who had been shorn and sported his summer look, which was more rat than dog. What a life! She jumped indoors and he bounded after her. I laboured with the suitcases. What a life! The little girl and dog were getting back into touch with each other and I emptied suitcases and started telling a few short tales about the trip. I’d been sharing lots of pictures, so the sights were already familiar. My wife had to head off to a reception with the IMF’s MD, who had arrived earlier in the day. I asked to give my regards. Twenty hours of travel was taking its toll. I needed rest and I urged my child to do likewise: we were both in bed soon after 8pm local time (about 2am London time, so nearly 24 hours being awake). My wife told us that she had a breakfast date with the high and mighty, and that we had a drive to Port Antonio due up later today. Move it, move it!

I started to read the day’s paper and catch up with Wimbledon tennis on TV; that lasted about 15 minutes. Neither was that riveting. We had to get rested fast as we would be on the move again soon. Next stop, Rio, Brazil.

I have a week to learn some useful Portuguese phrases. Thankfully, the day just ending was a rest day in the World Cup; the knockout phase would start in earnest today. Brazil-Chile is on the docket. Serous things a gwaan.

No more need for French politesse. No more need for Cockney slang. Patois was back on the menu.

Good over evil?

I must write about some of the implications of the so-called ‘Vybz Karkel murder trial’. But, first, I want to touch on one of Jamaica’s other seeming conundrums. Many people are quick to say how Jamaicans lack civility and decent; how they are rude and boorish and disrespectful; how they are quick resort to anger and use foul language and violence. Yet, I contend, that is not what most Jamaicans are like. It may be what we see sometimes. It may be part of what the news media report as ‘news’. But, it is a small part of the picture that has been made to seem like the whole or most.

In the middle of the week I was a witness to a violent attack. I was outside with my daughter and a classmate, who were riding on the roadway. One of my neighbours pulled up in her car, with her older daughter. We began a conversation. I had seen her a few times recently while she was running but we had not chance to talk by our houses. We took the time to catch up casually–about her running, about our children (her oldest daughter was with her in the car), about my wife, about work, about our dogs. Two of her dogs were nearby, roaming on her lawn. My daughter’s puppy came down the driveway and was also roaming around. Suddenly, my neighbour’s dog, black, jumped on my daughter’s puppy, white, pinning him to the ground and taking a good bite of him. I heard the first squeals and went quickly to the dogs, yelling “Hey, stop that!” The black dog jumped up and ran back towards his home.

His owner, a little shocked, began to apologise for what had happened. The black dog, showing some contrition, had his hackles raised and his head was bowed. Our dog, got up and walked around without any gait. I saw a streak of redness around one eye and damp pinkish fur around his face. Clearly, he had been cut, but it was not too bad. He skipped back inside the house not seeming to be in too much pain.

The children were shocked but not scared. They went back to riding bikes. My neighbour and I continued talking for a few more minutes, then she headed home and I continued with the children.

When my wife came home, we explained to her what had happened. She decided to send the dog to the vet the next day to check the injury. When we came home later the next afternoon, a strange-looking animal came to greet us. We did not see the long-haired, round-faced puppy that we had begun to know so well. Instead, we say an elongated animal, looking like an a sausage on legs, with a pointy face and nose, and a bluish ring around one eye. The only way that we knew the two animals were the same was from the subdued but familiar greeting, as he tried stand on his hind legs to be stroked. Shock! Horror! The dog had been shorn, literally, of his dignity. We laughed. He went to lie do. He had stitches and was still recovering from his ordeal at the vet’s. It turns out that the vet had added insult to injury by cutting the dog on his stomach, and having to stitch that, too. I wondered if we would sue the doctor.

Yesterday, my neighbour called at my house. We spoke for several minutes about her running and how her injuries were just making it all too difficult. She then saw our puppy and asked what had happened. I explained about the visit to the vet’s. Then, she said “Give me the bill from the vet. It’s my fault; it’s my dog who did the damage.” I told her to talk to my wife, who had the bill and they could sort it out.

That’s where we are now. I don’t know if my wife will act and if my neighbour will pay. I expect the situation to be resolved amicably.

Although, the incident did not involve any people directly, it seemed like a typical confrontation that could occur anywhere, not just in Jamaica. An unprovoked attack. An injured victim. An attacker witnessed and apprehended. It could be allegorical, but I wont go there now. No harsh words were exchanged between my neighbour and myself. She looked embarrassed as well as a bit shocked. I was not too taken about–nature in the raw, tooth and claw, I thought. It was not our children having a go at each other. Not much blood had been spilt. I was sanguine about the sanguineness.

On any given day, as I roam around Kingston, I see little incidents. People yelling at each other. People waving their arms at each other. People showing clear signs of anger with each other. I have yet to see anyone strike another person, and therefore, I have not seen what is reported daily in the apparent litany of crime that occurs. I am not denying crime and its horrific and senseless self.

I am no fool, and I did not grow up in a baby’s nursery. I did not grow up in the poshest of neighbourhoods, nor did I grow up in a seething cauldron of violence. But, I grew up in places where people took out their grievances openly quite often. I’ve seen my mother face a deranged woman–a tenant–wielding a huge kitchen knife in our house. I’ve seen a man take a crowbar and beat another to the ground (over a minor traffic incident). I have been in riots in London that involved molotov cocktails and people kicking policemen and their horses. I have been in football stadiums when all Hell broke loose and it was a miracle that I did not get crushed in a stampede.

I know that it takes little provocation or none at all for people to let loose on each other and try to beat the living daylights out of each other. Hurling bricks, wielding sticks, pulling knives are things that I have seen up close–when I was a boy, mostly. Cuts, punches, kicks, bites, ripped clothes, bloody faces, broken limbs or joints are things that I have seen as the results of altercations. Some of the encounters were in places where confrontation reigns–on the football field; the worst ones ended with the police arriving and people being taken away in handcuffs. Most of the others ended with people running away or walking away, sometimes promising that “This isn’t over…” Sometimes, people returned to the fray at their next meeting.

Which is to say what? Jamaica is extraordinary but yet quite ordinary. What I have seen (though it may be changing) is that a large proportion of the daily violence that is reported occurs in a very small space.

Jamaica murder map
Jamaica murder map

Police reports often talk about ‘gang-related’ crimes. Let’s say that much of the violence is due to ‘turf wars’. Wherever that ‘turf’ is, the incidents related to it are concentrated. The metropolitan area of Kinston-St. Andrew and St. Catherine represents one of its prime areas.

We have, also, a lot of reported cases of domestic violence. Again, however, they seem to occur in some places more than others. (Notably, the parish of Manchester’s biggest crime problem is domestic violence, involving spouses, children, neighbours, landlords and tenants.) Peter Bunting, Minister of National Security, and an MP for a Manchester seat, launched another initiative this week to reduce that problem.

Are most disputes resolved peacefully? I’d think so. Is violence the norm? No. One of the puzzling things about society is that we can get to believe not what we know to be commonplace but what we see reported or told to us often, even if it is not commonplace. Jamaica has about 3 murders a day; that’s a lot for a small country. Many of us will know victims and assailants. Few of us will ever be witnesses, however. That does not mean that the threat to us all is not worrisome.

For all the reports that I hear and read about crime in Jamaica, I do not walk with anything like the fears I harboured living in London or Washington. Why? I’ve been told that the Jamaican variant is really focused on a subculture of the society. I may cross its path, but I think I can help myself by steering away from it, or making my encounters when things are more favourable, say in daylight not at dad of night. In London, I was living in the midst of terrorism, with bombers planting traps any and everywhere that large groups of people went. Mailboxes and garbage bins were places to hide parcel bombs. Train stations were targets. ALl parts of daily life held danger. Just look at the summary data on terrorist incidents in Britain.

Bus bombed in central London
Bus bombed in central London

Daily life was compromised, yet daily life went on. We took the best precautions we could. Public mailboxes were sealed in some places. Barriers were erected. Police presence became more common place. Sometimes, travel on the Underground was mayhem as the security was so heavy. Going out for a pint with your mates became a dice with death experience. That is not living, but it was daily life.

We lived in Washington DC during the time of the so-called ‘Beltway sniper attacks‘. It was around the time we were due to get married. We were out getting decorations at a store and got gasolene nearby, hours before there was a sniper attack on that same gas station.

Beltway sniper: Lee Boyd Malvo
Beltway sniper: Lee Boyd Malvo

That makes your knees knock. Friends would not come to our wedding from abroad because they feared for their lives. We were shocked further when the snipers were captured and one of them had a Jamaican connection. Oh, no! Our people, we thought.

The London and Washington experiences were harder because they involved crime as random events–the risks seemed evenly spread that we could be caught up in it; there was no place you could avoid easily. Alright, don’t go to work, or out to the pub, or take a train or walk in the park. Live a life in front of the TV or reading books and order in food, and somehow continue? I think not.

When I lived in England, people could not understand why I lived in an area, Tottenham, that was full of violence. It was rough, but it was to me, just a working class neighbourhood that offered great amenities and an easy commute to The City. True, one of London’s famous riots, at Broadwater Farm, happened in a housing estate five minutes walk from my house. I had no inclination to move to bucolic suburbs or rural areas; I could visit them whenever I wanted. I grew up as a Londoner and like it.

When I lived near Washington DC, and worked downtown, people outside the US knew DC to be the murder capital of America and again asked “Why go there?”. Again, the whole was true but the problem was really only in a part, mainly South East DC. I felt more trepidation because I did not know the city well at first. Over time, I got the measure of the place and went about my business blissfully ignorant of dangers. We faced other dangers because, after ‘9-11’, Washington became another target for terrorists. Roads were closed, barriers erected, security levels raised. Daily life became a hassle.

I’m not going to make light of Jamaica’s crime and the dilemmas it raises, but I am also not going to put it in front of my face as being something that is ‘sweeping the land’, despite what news reports or some commentators try to suggest. I may find myself held up today, or shot at this evening, or witness a robbery, or see and hear someone being violently attacked. I may be wrong, but I don’t have the impression that this is the Jamaica I or most people walk through each day. That it is the Jamaica for some is a problem and that I will tackle later. That some people have a wanton disregard for law, order, other people’s lives, I wont deny. That Jamaica has a social system that is broken or breaking, and a political system that is not really healing that, I wont argue. But, I will argue that ‘good’ has not yet given way to ‘evil’–and that is not to put a carrot in front of those who want to see it all in religious terms. To me, that’s important to hold on to and think about moving forward.

Mind sets

Perhaps, I come with an obvious bias, but I was shocked when a diplomat, who’s been living in Jamaica commented that without golf being available, life here would be difficult because “there’s not much to do”. I thought briefly before offering a response.

I accept that, compared to some large cities like London, Paris, or New York, Jamaica has fewer museums, theatres, sights of historical renown, large parks, castles (though NYC draws a blank there, too), huge rivers, trappings of regal splendour (sorry, NYC, you lose again, too), fancy and famous restaurants (yes, London stands up proudly), glitzy bars (Jamaica has lots of bars, but glitz costs a lot of moolah), swanky shopping arcades, sidewalks filled with name-brand stores and associated celebrities…

Perhaps, I’m too content thinking that exploring a country that, although physically small, has so much land that is hardly well-known to even its oldest residents, holds sufficient interest to keep so-called ‘busy’ people enthralled.

Assuming–and it does not seem an heroic assumption–that the average workaday person is spending between 8-12 hours a day doing their job, spsending about up to two hours a day commuting, spends about 3 hours communing with family, loved ones and domestic servants, and between 6-8 hours asleep, that’s much of most weekdays filled. Of course, each of those days could have a good slug of free time to browse around stores, or museums, or bars, etc., or to take in a show. But, more ‘free’ time comes at the weekend.

Alright, if golf is your passion, then bang goes maybe six hours over the 48 hours of the weekend. You’re religious, or even if not truly a believer in God or some supreme being, it’s better in Jamaica to pretend that you believe because explaining non-believing will take up much of what’s left of the precious weekend. So, that means about 3-4 hours of time in places of worship, and that’s without any socializing, which may be important if you truly want to gauge the temperature of a country that is foreign to you. That’s 10 hours gone, already. Time for sleep? Forget lying in, because you want to
max out on doing things, so figure on 16 hours over two days so that batteries are fully recharged. So, 26 hours gone.

What’s can you do in 22 hours? If you want to explore, you would have to allow a good 2-4 hours driving to get somewhere interesting, and that’s without any road problems because the marl patch up has been washed away by the latest rain squall. So, 18 hours to ‘do stuff’.

Let’s assume that you are health-conscious. Hiking, biking, running, kayaking, rafting, swimming, in some beautiful and challenging terrain is an option. I understand that an enormous amount of people pay hard-earned lolly to go to Jamaica to do this, and some have it year round. Imagine.

Health-conscious but activity challenged? How about the beach? Jamaica has some very nice spots. Eighteen hours hanging out at some of those would seem a good thing to try. True, the sun may be intense and so may be the heat, and though there’s shade in many places, the heat has no ‘off’ button. Plenty of people seem to make a living catering for these problems, though, and someone to lather your body with oils, whether natural and no-name but produced by Ras Rubbup in the hills or a brand that has so much printed on the label that you could use that as reading while relaxing.

So, 18 hours of body bronzing with or without some oily TLC pampering. That’s the stuff to make your friends on Facebook send a stream of comments and emoticons indicating that they love you, but… BFF no more, maybe?

But, you must get hungry during that time. Well, body bronzing places and good eating places are not necessarily close together, though they need not be too far. The food things won’t be hard to work out, but you may have to think ahead.

If you are a fishist, then Little Ochi or Border are not just a spin around the block if headed off to Portland or Negril or just some little sweet spot on the north coast. But, slickened with herbal oils, you may be able to slide easier and get there for a good fish feed.

If you are a porkist or just meatist, then finding your poison will be easier, unless our mind is set on jerk at its finest and you had to get to Boston. But, let’s just say that you are adventuresome.

Roadside food is never too far away. Oh, the soup doesn’t have a fancy name? Problem, in the land of “No problem”. Look, janga and mannish are about as fancy as it’s going to get, so just roll with it being called ‘chicken’ or ‘corn’ or ‘cow cod’. We don’t do bouillabaisse. We don’t do broth, unless you’re sick. We do tea, made with fish, but you don’t drink it with your pinky pointing northeast; you put it to your head and slurp slowly, if not quietly. Watch for bones. Watch out, too, for ‘the food’: a dumpling or piece of yam falling onto your face from a short distance is still a shocking experience, though not as traumatic as when the food falls to the ground. Then, the true power of latent learning comes as you utter words heard from the mouth of the gardener but not understood, till now. “Wha wrang widisya piece a yam, man!” (Notice, the Jamaican question is rhetorical and declarative.) Like the soup, you may have to season your contempt for the inconsiderate morsel with a “to r*%^” (speak to a Jamaican for clarification, here :-)).

So, you’re bronzed, oiled, and your belly full. Did we get drinks, at all? Cha! How we could forget? Notice, how a day out in Jamaica has somehow changed the way you think and form speech. Me better grab one a disya jelly cokenut di man ha pon di kyart. Like Elisa Doolittle, there’s a “By Jove, she’s got it!” moment coming. If life were a musical, then all the street vendors, and people working in nearby fields would suddenly appear and throw on straw hats carefully hidden under their stalls, wave machetes and hoes, and break into some spirited singing and dancing, flinging themselves and their wares all over the place is well choreographed moves. “Mi sehhh, day oh!”

What a way to end the day. Time to roll into bed and take a few winks before another workaday week presses the weary soul.

My wife and her colleagues were planning their annual picnic and produced a list of places on which staff could vote; she did not have a veto. They opted for somewhere on the north coast, based around some all-incisive hotel. We’d wanted to go to Chukka Cove, which sounded like a lot of fun. Maybe, we had the wrong idea of what would be fun to do. Not everyone is into zip lining or snorkeling or anything that doesn’t involve an iPad or Kindle. But, that’s what makes life interesting.
I’m intrigued that the choices did not include any spots off-island. There’s so much more to do abroad, I hear. Maybe, cost was an issue, and then there are those annoying visa restrictions to get into other countries. Cha!

Better get myself ready to be bored out of my mind for a couple of days. But, wait. My cousin’s suggested I play golf at Runaway Bay on Satday. Saved!

One love 🙂