#COVID19Chronicles-232: November 26, 2020-Giving thanks

In the USA, this week is usually when most people travel, to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family. In these COVID pandemic days, however, travel and mingling are less encouraged. Positive cases and deaths have been soaring in the USA during November.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) urged people not to travel, yet, the numbers going through airports last weekend through November 25 were the highest since March, over 1 million each day.

People seem determined to travel despite the high-level advice:

It’s not hard to understand: being together with loved ones and close friends has been hard for most of the year, and for most Americans, the Thanksgiving holiday is their national get-together, free from any religious associations that make holidays occurring in late-December a hodge-podge of competing claims. I also think that most people in the USA need a release of tensions that have built up immensely this year, but maybe more so in the USA heading into and continuing through their presidential elections, which should have concluded with voting on November 3. It has, however, become an extensive display of petulance by the incumbent President, claiming fraud and victory with only a set of blinded partisans try to dispute. (The popular vote was clear—over 6 million margin; the Electoral College count is clear—306 votes to 232, a margin the incumbent called a “landslide” when it was in his favour in 2016, even with nearly 3 million popular vote deficit, but he now calls “stolen”.)

Jamaica doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but some of its trappings have seeped into our culture—namely, shopping on ‘Black Friday’. But, many Jamaicans with strong US-ties do celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday and time to gather as families. (Remember, around 1 million ‘Jamaicans’ are in the USA, according to the 2010 Census; many Jamaicans have been and are schooled in the USA; returning residents from the USA are numerous.)

Also, my wife needs a break, not least from 9 hours of Zoom teleconferencing most days, so we’re taking a staycation over Thanksgiving; it fits with our youngest daughter being home from school for that holiday, and last year her older sisters living in the USA came to spend Thanksgiving with us in Portland (bringing some essential ingredients for the dinner :).

We cruised along the highways to the north coast.

SUV becomes true modern pack mule
Coastal view from highway in St. Ann

The car had become the true beast of burden, as it often does on our staycations—we know what we like to eat, so we leave little to chance on food and drink—and this time the passengers were fewer than on previous trips, so space for them was not totally at a minimum.

Traffic was normal, ie relatively light. Our car was laden with the makings of our Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, vegetables, salad, maraconi, cheese. Some debates were going on about the menu, especially desserts. But, the basics were set; Brussel sprouts seemed elusive. We would not be doing a fried turkey, as suggested by one of our local papers:

My wife asked the cook at our lodging if he knew how to make macaroni and cheese. That was not the right question; he needed to know how her mother made it, which he doesn’t, so let’s just accept he needs to be guided, carefully.

We made a chance discovery regarding dessert by having some pumpkin pudding bought from the famous ‘Pudding Man’ in Priory, St. Ann. A few slices of that would work a treat.

I’m not sure of the dinner schedule, as we’ve relatives due to arrive tonight. Meantime, I will settle into a Thanksgiving routine that has to be based around what happens in the USA. That means tuning into the traditional Thanksgiving NFL game between Dallas (‘Cowboys’, aka ‘America’s team’) and Washington (now ‘Football Team’, formerly ‘Redskins’)—an age-old and fierce rivalry—which will be on late-afternoon, with the Detroit Lions hosting the Houston Texans around 12.30pm.

I have half an eye out for visitors from the USA who have decided to leap on planes to come to Jamaica. I understand, but I also am leery of the spread of the pandemic surging out of control there and jumping here. Truth, though, foreign visitors have reportedly been amongst the best behaved group in terms of observing COVID protocols, and we know first-hand that no one in getting on a plane to Jamaica if they have not the required negative COVID test.

Why they love to visit Jamaica (and maybe, other Caribbean countries) is clear: it’s not just the weather, but often a certain ambience, especially if seeking calm. Ironcially, an well-known friend of Jamaica, Arlene Hoffman, died this week:

As The Gleaner wrote:

‘Her love affair with Jamaica began in Port Antonio in the late 1960s. It later moved to Hopewell, Hanover, at the Round Hill, where she learned to inhale all the beautiful Jamaican elements – the cuisine, the laughter, the resort lifestyle, the butterflies and especially the art.

In the early 1970s, her much acclaimed ‘bare bottom’ print ad to promote Jamaica’s tourism found traction with consumers. The ad also found a permanent home in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And back then, Hoffman and her agency, Hoffman Mann, spoke to a new generation of American women, nudging them to let them know it was okay to throw a bikini in a bag and run away to a beach in Montego Bay.

Hoffman’s biggest impact on Jamaica came in the late 1970s when she created the We’re More than a Beach … We’re a Country advertising campaign to lure resistant American tourists to the island.’

It’s easy to get this. Just this morning, as I was walking the golf course near where we’re staying, I car came by and I heard “Mr. Jones! You’re back.” A lady waved and we chatted for a minute before she continued her ride to where she worked. She was one of the house staff who looked after us when we visited the area in August. That’s what makes many people return to Jamaica, which has a 40% return visitor rate.

Staff who cater to tourists are amongst our most treasured but perhaps underrated assets.

You can bank on me, but be patient

I spent too long in a bank, yesterday, doing a routine transaction. My daughter’s piano teacher wants her to take one of the music board exams. She wanted proof of payment by today, meaning a deposit voucher. So, I stood in line for over an hour to put $4000 or so into the board’s account. The line was about 40 people long when I joined it, and it stayed about that amount as people came and went.

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When I joined three cashiers were working.

Some in the line began venting their frustration. A lady several places ahead grumbled about how the many other bank staff were doing nothing and could ease things by dealing with the line. She looked over to the customer service desk and complained how “there was no customer service”. I just happened to have been given clear advice from the person at that desk. “That’s nonsense,” I chimed in and explained why. The lady rolled on with her serial complaints. She was going to vent.

A man just in front of me started opining about how “we need to unite” and get the country moving in a better way. He chanted that two more cashiers would ease our waiting a lot. I began discussing with him the problems of slow cashiers and customers who love to talk about the world and their mothers. In the meantime, another cashier started to work. The line started to move a little faster.

I avoid going to banks. I pay every utility bill online. I use ATM to withdraw cash and now to make deposits. The limits on cash withdrawal from ATM force me to join the lines, occasionally, so that I can deal with some bigger cash transactions. Jamaica is heavily dependent on cash and I can’t change that singlehandedly. I try by using my debit/credit card a lot.

I’m not used to having to be in banks. But, most Jamaicans are. They spend hours there and I wondered about the lost man hours and productivity it caused. This is nothing new, but it seems in no hurry to change.

It’s chicken and egg. Many organizations are not set up to handle electronic payments. I recalled my long conversations with a hospital about how to settle bills other than by visiting it’s office or a bank. I felt like the archetypal alien. But, I got my way to work. Maybe, my refusal to schlep around helped.

My line was moving well and I was next to a large cardboard poster of a smiling bank employee, welcoming me and promising to serve me better.

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I felt like putting my money into her hands and asking her to call me when all was done. It was an ironic assertion.

Some comments suggested that free WiFi would make waiting more bearable. One man was using his time to make his lotto picks. I noticed that some people were in line for others, mainly businesses, as places were exchanged. That made sense. Such is life. I would have liked tea and biscuits, milk no sugar and Digestives. Banks, please note.

Just like that, I was at the front. My “unity” man was already being served. He smiled at me. “You see, extra cashier made a difference,” he said with a smirk.

Over one hour had been spent in the company of my affable compatriots. I looked over at the section of the bank where senior citizens were seated, for their special services. They did not seem to have budged. Such is life.

Junkanoo rushing from itself?

I am not going to venture deep into the waters of Bahamian Junkanoo. JunkanooThat is a minefield best entered with enough protection to thwart all forms of attack.

It’s just about noon on Boxing Day (December 26). The first parade of the Christmas season has just come towards its end as far as a public spectacle is concerned. The last ‘A group’ has left the main show area, Bay Street and Rawson Square. The crowd has left the temporary bleacher stands faster than hot bread leaves shelves. The tired fans are rushing towards their beds. Many have been out watching this annual spectacle for the better part of 10 or more hours. That’s a long time for any event, let alone one that is put on hours after the main dinner of the year for most people, on Christmas Day, and after a night when many were in church way past midnight. My young daughter and her mother went gleefully from our lodgings at about 1.30am. They returned home at about 8am. My wife did not make it past the sofa and hit it with a thud. She’s still pole-axed. My daughter told me she slept during the parade. She’s hanging in there. I’d decided to give the live parade a pass this year.

In the recent past, I’ve not felt the same fun as in earlier years. The groups came out late. Gaps between groups were long. The performances did not compensate for the sense of frustration that I felt. Instead, I decided to try watching it on local TV. It was not bad. It started on time–3am, later than usual because of a risk of rain earlier and to give the groups a better chance to get their pieces in position. The first group always suffer, and Saxons did. But, I was impressed by the promptness and settled in for a good show. Then,  problems with the next major group emerged soon. Two hours after the parade had begun that second group was still not on the road. The ‘reasons’ started to trickle in. Maybe, BEC, the national electricity company had an outage, so the groups were having to work in the dark. Anyway, we were backing up. I forwarded myself to my bed at 5.30am.

Two hours later, I awoke and found that I’d missed only two of the remaining five major groups. The delays have become perennial.

For a change, as I was watching from home, I went online and sent out a stream of commentary about the events. I encouraged people to watch the broadcast online–it was good.

I found myself getting into the commentary, as the groups’ performances hit my ears and eyes. Most left me flat. Thankfully, the best was saved for last. The Valley Boys, often called ‘the premier group’ of Nassau’s Junkanoo, came out with a spectacular show, under the theme of ‘From China to The Bahamas’. It was a simple theme, that lent itself to a consistent approach: everything Chinese. Fabulous costumes, flouting reds and yellows. Black faces whitened to look Asiatic. Lanterns. Buddha. Chinese national flag. Ladies with fans. Wide-brimmed hats. Images of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon. A bonus was the Prime Minister, Perry Christie, a well-known avid Valley fan, out of the streets in FULL REGALIA, rushing, dressed as a Chinese Emperor. He even immortalized his dance, the ‘Perry Shuffle’. All in good fun.

Junkanoo is a national treasure or artistic and musical inventiveness and Bahamians are fiercely proud of it. But, it looks like it’s about to outlive its current form.

The major groups are now very large (around 1,000) persons. Many costumes are very large and heavy: that’s one reason why the prospect of rain and strong winds sent ripples of fear through the organizers. The delays seem to be a constant. What to do about the parade will be a topic of conversation, at least during the Christmas Season. Many acknowledged that the ‘fun groups’ (sometimes just a handful of people, having fun, especially with a few drinks) may need to be dropped, though they have the benefit of filling gaps when bigger groups are tardy. The ‘B groups’ are not really competitive with the larger ‘A groups’, which are larger and better funded. Even the A groups are not all equally blessed. Should new funding options be considered? Should a change of format and venue be considered? The National Stadium. The PM and some of his Cabinet aired that view when interviewed during the parade. Traditionalists may bridle at ‘taking Junkanoo away from its roots’. But, things change. One Bahamian friend, who was a traditionalist, but got bored and tired of the delays, and is convinced that a stadium style could work, having seen how Brazil’s carnival now works.

I can sense the fears of the traditionalists. I’ve seen the same process at work with things that have much longer and deeper roots, for instance, the relocation of a sports stadium that has been part of a community for decades. There’s a lot of emotion invested in the location of events. Just this week, we saw the last NFL game played at Candlestick Park–a ‘baby’, built in 1960. The English soccer team I support, Queens Park Rangers, are now going forward with plans for a new stadium. I grew up in the shadows of the current stadium; I can’t visualize home games being played anywhere else but at Loftus Road (the team’s home since 1917). All of my childhood football memories from the early-1960s–glories and despair–are enshrined in that place. I have a friend who’s apartment abutted Arsenal’s former home, Highbury Stadium, and remember her anguish at plans to build a new stadium after plans had been rejected to expand Highbury. She was not even a fan, but her life had been deeply touched by where she lived and what she experienced with the football stadium and its activities just outside her kitchen window. So, I know any word about changing Junkanoo wont be taken just so.

The Junkanoo format needs to change. The groups need to accept a different kind of discipline. Spectators wont keep putting up with the current situation. If they don’t then the event will die. I wont presume the discussion, but it needs to happen. Recent history suggests that the ‘conversation’ will be painful. Some say, “let the groups decide”. But, just because that’s how many things are in the Caribbean, those who really have the power to make decision, may decide and changes go ahead anyway, and then there will be recriminations about lack of consultation and betrayal of traditions, etc.

At least, The Bahamas have their Junkanoo as a vibrant part of their national life. Jamaica is barely holding on to its version of Junkanoo–more in keeping with the earlier base of the  festival: a holiday for slaves, with many trappings of African traditions and aspects of colonial experience mixed. A rump, not even matching the horse’s head that is part of the tradition. I’d get into a fight about trying to boost that tradition much sooner that mix it up with Bahamians about where they will hold their parade.

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!

Hide under your bed!

My daughter was all breathless last Saturday. “Did you see them, Daddy? There at the plaza. Did you?” I had no idea what had caught her interest, but it was having a big effect. “They were scary. Really scary. I don’t want to meet them again.” What was bothering her so much, in a place that is normally no more animated than with the jangling harsh cries of Coaster bus conductors crying out “Town! Half Way Tree! Come, Mamma!”

As our car approached the corner where the plaza was to our right, my daughter craned her neck. “Just check that they’re not standing by the traffic light. Please!” I looked over my shoulder as the pop-eyed child looked left and right frantically. “There! There they are! Drive!” I looked but could not see clearly what it was as I completed my turn. Little eyes were covered and the head was turned to look back at the junction.

It’s Christmas time and Jamaica still has some traditions that, though celebrated elsewhere, still have a special and different feel. This time it was Junkanoo. I could not share my child’s fear at that precise moment, but my own childhood fears came rushing back. Oh, the horse head! No! Run! Hide! I’m getting under the bed. Move! Out of my way! Don’t let them get me!junkanoo

Junkanoo, seen at major holidays, was not a fun thing for a child to see. No, siree. My child, sadly for her, had witnessed Junkanoo, but the gaily coloured and noisy street festival that is held in Nassau. Nothing about that sends chill through watchers; they get chills because cold Atlantic breezes are blowing them hard. Welcome to Jamaica! Again.

I’ll let her learn about the tradition and its origins. I’m so glad that another of those timeless pieces of Jamaican life is still going–not necessarily strongly, but going anyway. Be afraid, child. Very afraid. Christmas is here.