Thursday, July 7, 2016
Keep the Vibes Calm: Life Stages, Changes, and a Trip Back to Jamaica
We went to Jamaica back in the fall of 2000 when we first started dating. Caroline was shooting a wedding and I tagged along. While she was working, I stayed in the room and read Giovani’s Room by James Baldwin. After the wedding, we got a lot of beach time in. We fell in love with the Rock House where we stayed in Negril, jumping off the decks into the lovely blue water off the West Coast of Jamaica. We always said we’d be back soon. And then life got in the way. Sixteen years, multiple jobs, two kids, and lots of adventures later, we made our way back.
It had been a weird weekend. Mom was sick, in and out of the hospital. So we ran back and forth, doing errands, dropped the kids off at Summer camp, where they will get their well-deserved break from Mom and Dad. Its never a perfect weekend to go out of town when Mom is sick. You always wonder if something is going to happen. You need to be nearby you think to yourself. Finally, sitting in the hospital Monday, we talked with the doctors. She was re hydrating and said, “Go. Go on your trip and have fun.”
So we left, waking up early in the AM, and making our way to Newark. Through security, sitting getting ready to catch a plane, we heard the flight was overbooked. Caroline looked at our tickets. They don’t have seats numbered there. The airline was offering $1000.00 per person to people willing to travel the next day. Caroline went to talk with the ticket agent. She says take the deal. You’re going to get bumped anyway. Damn. Two thousand bucks later. We went back to visit mom from the airport and went out for Spanish food, enjoying some sangria, paella and memories of our last two years of adventures in Spain. The universe wanted us to stay one more night. And that was ok.
Tuesday, we did it all again. And sure enough the flight was overbooked again. Wanna try it again and make some more money I asked Caroline.
No, Caroline insisted. She can’t go the same route twice, much less three times.
So we made caught the flight to Montego Bay. I read about the tragic history of the place. Between the Spanish colonists, British slave trade, and the structural adjustment policies of the IMF here which left Jamaica more in debt, these are folks who have seen some of the worst dynamics of history. The Taino people, some of the first to encounter Columbus’ voyage, were wiped out, before the millions of slaves were brought here along the “Middle Passage” from West Africa. Independent for some fifty years, few refer British Colonialism here. But the legacies of the West Indies linger. They’ve encountered some of the darkest dynamics of history here, with scars to show for it. And yet everyone perseveres.
From Captain Morgan to Life and Debt, these good people have endured a lot.
They are the greatest folks, welcoming us everywhere we go.
The air felt warm and welcoming when we walked off the plane.
“You are Jamericans,” smiled one woman at the airport, when she heard it was our second trip here.
“Left is right and right is suicide,” she warning pointing to the parking situation here.
Last time we drove from Montego Bay, much of the road was crumbling. This time, there was more development. “But it’s the same old Jamaica,” noted our driver. He showed us his old school as we drove the 90 minutes to the Rock House.
The water ebbed up to the cliffs. We drove by old shacks and shantis. People along the street, hanging out on the beach.
And finally we arrived at the Rock House, where our
room stared out into the ocean of perfect blue water.
We jumped off the cliffs into the luscious water, swimming all afternoon.
Finally, we wander over to the Punchcart Restaurant for dinner, enjoying a few drinks. Caroline orders the ackee and saltfish to start. Its amazing. I have jerk chicken and lentil stew over a pile of fluffy white rice. The food is amazing. I have never quite tasted anything like ackee. Originally imported from West Africa on a slaveship, today it is one of the national symbols of Jamaica.
With its combination of influences, peppers, and histories, the food will surprise all trip long. Lots of sauces and vegetables and fish, one feels a New Orleans vibe as well as flavors unique to this experience.
Coquis and birds chirp all night long.
We wake before sunset to read and watch the day begin.
That morning, we take in a session of yoga and a Jamaican breakfast.
Our Jamaican Breakfast includes mountain coffee and orange juice, ackee and saltfish served with callaloo, coconut water, and eggs.
“You guys free?” I ask a couple of guys on a boat after breakfast.
They take us on a boat to the local coral reefs. The water is only six to ten feet deep in some places. Yet, the fish are everywhere, joining us as we swim.
“Respect,” they note, pointing to my Portugal football shirt.
And we swim for hours, looking at choral and zillions of fish, of all colors, exploring the wonders of nature.
Later that day, we wander to Negril to get cash and look at crafts.
On the beach it looked empty.
Where is everyone we asked one rastaman.
This is low season. But everything has been weird since September 11th.
The pina colada is the coldest I have ever had.
Can you get a beer for this rastaman?
At Presley’s, a shack near the hotel, we have snapper in brown sauce, peppers, and callalu, which are greens also originating from West Africa. The whole meal reminds me of the south. Caroline had the lobster, drinking Red Stripe the whole time.
People are riding bikes down the street in front of us in the shack at Pressley’s.
“How long does it take to get to Negril by bike?” I ask the 16-year-old kid who is covering as waiter.
“I guess an hour.”
“Really. Its gotta be shorter.”
“I’m sure. The cops took my bike so I have not ridden for a while.”
“The cops took your bike? Wow. I guess there is no getting it back is there?”
“What about the US? Is the Lady going to win. We hear your guy Trump doesn’t like anyone.”
“I hope the lady is going to win. And yes, he doesn’t like anyone. But that’s not what New York is about.
We are crazy. We have everyone. That’s what makes it fun.”
“Theres a spirit to that. You have to have that spirit.”
“He does not. But we do.”
The food had a distinct creole influence, like the Jamaican Patois, spoken by many here, combining roots in West Africa and English.
The bike incident our waiter talked about reminds us of the violence below the surface here, the homophobia. Our friend Craig was forced to leave abruptly when as a policeman he tried to follow the rules and brushed up against the wrong social forces. A brief history of seven killings by Marlon James follows a similar trajectory. Borrowing from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, this story begins:
Dead people never stop talking.”
Faulkner, of course, borrowed the title for his story from the Odyssey, Agamemnon speaking:
"As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”
Swimming and drinking rum, we look at the sea crash on the water. It feels like the Amalfi coast of Italy, with cliffs and legends, lingering in the tides. Looking at it, i recall going to the coast with mom a decade ago. So many trips through time with mom, even as she slows down a bit. Looking at the water smash against the rocks in the distance, I was very very aware of time and its passing. We were going to go to Georgia after this trip, but Mom said she’d need to stay home. No traveling for her this summer. Good memories would have to do. So we were busy making them and remembering.
I think about the movie Gods and Monsters, when a movie actor looking back at the end of 90 years of life confessed that the most telling of his life were from the trenches of World War. As he experienced the life’s twilight, those memories dominated his dreams. They were all he could dream about.
Caroline is reading The American Plague, a story about the 1878 case of the yellow fever outbreak in Memphis and its journey from mosquitoes across the Caribbean, through New Orleans, up the Mississippi. Today, we read that there are 233 cases of Zika in New York. History is full of such moments.
“Its amazing that they didn’t think to realize it was translated by mosquitoes,” she wonders reading about the Yellow Fever. “They are like flying syringes, full of blood.”
Still we swam and ate and explored the forest, looking at the trees, and rode horses. Walking out into the ocean with the horses, our guides suggested we lean forward, and the horses began to swim through the ocean from one side of the bay to the other along the beach.
The trees here are majestic. Perhaps our favorite was the old guano tree with egrits climbing out. Four hundred years old at least, its roots stretched into the water. The nignum big tree is the national tree here. I love the trees in Jamaica.
After the ride we ate jerk chicken, drank beer, and swam at Bourbon Beach. Everywhere we go, people come to talk. The hussle is everywhere. But i don't mind. Still, the poverty is punishing.
You get in conversations everywhere here. Some with the people getting high or trying to sell you something, some with the other vacationers from Germany or Italy or even the UK, by the pool where we drank pina coladas and laughed and swam.
Sitting at Murphy’s restaurant, a lovely lobster shack up the road from us, a couple from the UK walked in.
“It must be nice to get away from the Brexit” I asked.
“Do you think you’ll get a mulligan, a do over?”
“No I certainly hope not.”
All kinds of people are here. I had not expected someone sympathetic to the exit.
“We were offended when Obama tried to intervene.”
I was turning away at this point, thinking I am offended by the history of the British Empire.
But I didn’t say it. England is largely responsible for the slave trade to Jamaica. Yet they rarely seemed humbled by the pain they have inflicted on the world, the finger nails they pulled out of the fingers of Irish revolutionaries, the bones they broke of Indians committing non-violent civil disobedience, or the help they’ve needed during the wars they’ve repeatedly needs bails outs from.
It was better just to look at the stars. Later, we sat at the pool, looking out into the sky, wondering about astrology with Caroline. Whenever i look out, i think about the Seventh Seal, or the Vikings or pirates making their way through this ocean, across time.
Saturday was our last day, so we woke up early to watch the sun rise, read, edited chapters for Sustainable Urbanism and planned our day.
The plan was to do yoga, swim, get lunch at an organic farm and swim by the pool.
“This is the bumpy road to paradise,” smiled the cab driver, taking us to Westmorland Parish. Looking out at country, we passed a majestic old church and took pictures.
We were driving out to an organic farm, called Zimbali Retreats, for a tour and lunch. Our chefs made a five course meal starting with cauliflower cakes, made from breadcrumbs, spiced with salt and pepper, herbs carrots bell peppers, followed by coconut sushi with a mongo garnish, followed by jerk shrimp and a banana break with watermelon and caramelized bananas. Our chefs sat chatting about kids and cooking and the history of Jamaican cuisine. We drank white wine and talked about patois and history, cooking and friends and growing older. Mark, the amicable host, came to check on us introducing us to the staff of his farm.
“You remind me of Trinity from the Matrix,” he told Caroline.
Everyone said so.
And then they comped our lunch.
“Thanks for not making a big deal of us missing you earlier in the week.”
“No problem. Shit happens.”
So we made our way back for R and R, drank some comped champagne and looked at the sunset, jumped into water, and hung out into the night.
Somehow the world was coming to us all trip long. It was quite a moment. Comped lunch, tickets, and even a drink after dinner.
A pelican we’d seen all week flew around us dipping into the ocean to grab a fish. Hopefully, its not sixteen years before we are back to see him.
“Its sad we have to wait a year to come back,” smiled Caroline looking out at the water.
“We’ll be back.”
Here are a few of the pictures from our journey.
Tuesday Night arrivals.
Wednesday in the water
Thursday hanging out
Friday - swimming with the horses and eating at Murphy's
Saturday out to Westmoreland parish.
Sunday on our way home.
But we couldn't shake the memory of the water.