Monday, May 24, 2010

Jamaican Children Caught in Downward Spiral


There is much to love about Jamaica: the beaches, the friendly people, food, steel bands, and Reggae music, legacy of Bob Marley. The sun going down is perhaps too strong an image to use in a story about the future of its children. Recent news, however, detailing near open warfare breaking out between drug gangs and the police, offer little encouragement that much has improved since I wrote this piece following a trip there in December of 2004. From the Herald-Citizen, March 20, 2005.


**********

On the day after Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon, I took a walk south to Negril’s Towne Centre. It was about two miles from my room. The sun was bright and hot, and my legs were sore.

A small bridge arches over the Negril River at its estuary, and then the road enters a roundabout. Yesterday’s early-morning marathon had made a turnaround here before dawn and headed back north. I wanted to see the place in daylight.

Afterwards, walking back to my hotel, the sun got hotter. I waved at a cab. He pulled over.

“How much to the Tree House?”

He stretched across the seat, laboring to roll down the window. He started to say three but then changed it to five in mid-sentence when he looked up and saw an old gent. It came out like:

“Thre-uh-five.”

“Five? You said three the first time.”

“Three? No, I didn’t say three! Hee hee.”

I pressed the point, derisively.

“Is that five Jamaican dollars?” (Roughly one US dime in 2004)

“Hee hee hee. No, not Jamaican.

He knew he’d messed up. He also knew that it was a buyer’s market. If he left, there’d be another taxi along shortly, and he hated losing the fare. Finally, he said,

“How much you wanna pay?”

I’d won the argument. The ride was mine for three. So, I announced,

“I’ll give you five.”

I sat down beside him. I wanted to be generous; it’s hard in Jamaica.

“It’s hard in Jamaica,” he said.

I don’t mean for you, he told me—for us living in Jamaica. I asked him why it was hard. There’s too much unemployment and lots of poor people, he said. He appreciates tourist coming down. He wanted me to know that. He made the point twice. He rarely gets to the states, to Miami occasionally.

My generosity turned out to be a good investment; the man opened up. Money won’t buy anything, he said. I told him I knew about the Jamaican dollar falling. You go to the grocery store, a thousand dollars won’t buy anything—three little sacks, he said. He could remember when a thousand would actually buy something. A thousand dollars is only worth seventeen US dollars now.

With the decline of Jamaica’s economy has come an increase in drug trafficking, and other crimes, further sucking the lifeblood out of the country. A Kingston paper, The Sunday Gleaner, proudly shouted some news in a tall red two-word headline: “KINGFISH JACKPOT.” The story was about teaming up with Scotland Yard to catch some of Jamaica’s ‘Kingfish’ drug lords. Upon careful reading, the front-page story details more the hope of catching Kingfish than the actual catching of them. It reports only one caught so far, and he was caught, charged and tried in Great Britain, not Jamaica.

But officials are optimistic and upbeat. I don’t know. My thought is that for every Kingfish caught, likely two more will be waiting to take his place. Crime pays. And for drug trafficking, Jamaica lies conveniently placed, just 90 miles south of Cuba, a perfect transshipment point for cocaine traveling north from South America to North America and Europe.

A separate problem originates within the country—the illicit cultivation of cannabis, one confirmed by my earlier encounter on the beach with a man selling “smokes.” The government has a cannabis eradication program, but, as usual, corruption is a problem.

And what accompanies the drugs? The Gleaner reflects that, too: HIV, murder, social upheaval, and so on. I only have to scan the story titles: “AIDS, Disability and Insensitivity,” “A Crisis in Human Sexuality.” Numerous columns, stories and letters pursue this particular theme.

Kevin O’Brien Chang’s column on murder is eye popping. He said the murder rate was poised to top 1500 for 2004. He contrasted that with only 423 in 1989. He went on to note that “…Kingston is quite possibly the murder capital of the world….” (Perhaps Mexico's Ciudad Juarez holds that dubious distinction now.)

That is not the title Kingston needs when Jamaica uses the “One Love” theme to promote tourism, and it is not a title befitting the home place of its late author, Jamaican hero and musician, Bob Marley.

Caught in the swirl of all this ugliness are the children, the beautiful little children, standing roadside in clusters waiting for the bus, smiling in their school uniforms—khaki shirt and trousers for the boys, khaki skirt and maroon blouse for the girls. In the education of the children lies Jamaica’s hope for the future. But fear rests there too—the fear that those same children may not escape the grip of drugs, HIV and shootings already raging across the country.

On my last afternoon in Negril I sat in the beach bar looking north along the shore. A few feet away a little Jamaican girl, about seven years old, worked hard in the sand, digging with a green plastic shovel. She eventually built herself a sandcastle and then excavated a moat around it. She knew a moat should be filled with water, and she tried to coax the waves into doing the job. She lay beside the moat. Each time a wave ran up the beach toward the castle, she attempted to swipe some of its water into the trench. Her little hand didn’t catch enough to fill it.

Her little sister, maybe four years old, had an idea. She waded into the surf and filled a black plastic shopping bag. Then she ran up the slope with the bulging bag, jets squirting from holes in it, and dumped the contents into the moat. The older girl caught the idea and likewise filled a cardboard carton. They both ran back and forth, working hard and seriously, ferrying water to the moat. Finally the box softened and the bottom fell out.

They gave up then. All was lost. All the water they’d managed to pour into the moat seeped into the sand and drained away.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Steel Band in Flight Is the Human Heart Singing




Conditions have changed little since I wrote this story, I expect, except the exchange rates, which can, of course, change very quickly. From the Herald-Citizen, Cookeville, TN, March 13, 2005.

**********

The last morning before the Reggae Marathon, I figured a walk along the beach would be relaxing. So I struck out down Negril’s seven-mile beach, pride of western Jamaica. The sun was bright and warm, unlike the foggy December day I’d left behind in Tennessee.

Then a guy tried to sell me dope. Here he came, a stout young man wearing black droopy shorts, dreadlocks and a heavy ring on a gold chain around his neck, bling for the beach. He checked me out by offering a ride on the para-glider. But I wasn’t interested in any excitement. From my white beard, he concluded he faced an unreformed hippie—leastwise, a safe bet.

“I know a guy. I can get you some good smokes,” he said. I knew he could.

“No thanks, I wouldn’t care for any,” I said.

“It’s good stuff."

“No, I don’t want any. Thanks.”

“You don’t want that?” Puzzled, he turned and walked away.

His offer came on top of the female companionship a guy had tried to sell me the previous day, when I was in the airport restroom at Montego Bay.

The two trifling incidents maybe reflect a bigger problem for Jamaica: The economy is shattered. And where poverty goes, drugs, HIV, murder and other crimes follow.

A third of the population falls below the poverty line; the inflation rate hovers in double digits, and so does unemployment.

The Jamaican dollar is slipping. During the late nineties, 35 Jamaican dollars (J$35) bought one U.S. dollar (US$1.00). Lately the slide has quickened. As I planned my trip I saw an exchange rate of J$50. By the time I actually made the trip a few weeks later, it had reached J$60.

That may be good news for the traveler, but terrible news for Jamaicans. When their dollar falls from J$35 to J$60, their ability to buy groceries and other things likewise falls. Since this island country must import most of her staples, devaluation of its dollar hits doubly hard. Finally it takes a sack full of money to buy anything.

A gallon of gas costs J$140, a soda J$150, a beer J$200 and a speeding ticket J$10,000.

“They love the ‘American’ dollar,” a fellow traveler told me. Little wonder—the U.S. dollar represents lasting value, while the Jamaican dollar erodes away like sand under foot. Realizing that, I paid for most of my purchases with U.S. dollars.

Despite the hardship around me, my days passed pleasantly. I sat at a table on the veranda of my villa working and reading. A garden of shrubs and flowers comes up to the porch. Walks to other villas criss-cross the garden. Maids and maintenance men go about their work, singing as they pass. They love to sing—pop songs and reggae tunes mostly. But in the distance, briefly I heard a man’s voice booming two lines:

When we all get to heaven,
We will meet on that beautiful shore.

Not waiting for the sweet by and by, I promptly went down and sat on that beautiful shore.
The singing and the friendly demeanor of the Jamaicans that I met seemed at odds with the difficult conditions they face. A wide smile and a, “Yah Mon,” are typical.

But it was not always so pleasant. One day I sat working, reading and writing. An angry argument flared up between two men in the driveway near my porch. Although I couldn’t see the two men for a picket fence, the sound was more than enough.

The volume hit a shrill pitch I thought only the hard shock of a 9-mm would end. Or maybe a scream gurgled by a sharp blade. It was like a taunt rubber band stretched to the limit. The invectives screamed out in Spanish came in waves, and the altercation gradually drifted down the drive to the road. I hoped they’d take it a mile on down the road. But it continued there.

A car passed and drowned the argument under the loud wailing of Bob Marley. But just for a few seconds. Then the argument resurfaced. It was more than wearisome—it was unnerving. In it all, I hear two reasonable words shouted out en ingl├ęs.

“Shut up! Shut up!”

After twenty minutes it finally played out, from sheer exhaustion I guess. While it lasted, the strident Spanish set my primordial reflexes a-twitch, and I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I was working on my Spanish assignment.

Tourists are important to Jamaicans. They want you to come back. Tourism is one resource they do have. But, of course, lots of other places have the stuff of tourism, the beaches and sunshine. But Jamaica has something more, something no one else has, and something no one can claim or take away: Bob Marley.

Or rather Bob Marley’s legacy. His dreadlock image is everywhere—in photographs, on woodcarvings, on tee shirts. Though he died in 1981 his reggae music lives on, celebrated with fervor in Jamaica. His song, “One Love,” has become a Jamaican anthem, if not a world one.
Besides running the marathon, my main goal was to search out a place where I could hear live reggae music played by a steel band. I need not have worried. Race organizers had arranged for the Caribbean Regal Steel Band to play in the park at the pre-race supper. The ten-member mixed-gender group filled that space with music. I pulled my folding chair up to the front and center, and let the music wash over me.

In one stretch they played—what else—“One Love,” swung into—I swear!—Glen Miller’s “In the Mood,” sailed into “Rocking Robin,” and chased that with “Tequila”—something for everyone. Their music was complex, melodic, joyous, clear as a bell. I believe they could have played Beethoven’s ninth.

Oil drum: The ordinary 55-gallon steel barrel. Detritus of petroleum the world over: it took the descendants of slaves in nearby Trinidad to fashion it into a musical instrument. They cut the end off and hammered it into a concave surface, making a drum that sings. Strike it at different places and you make different notes. Shape another drumhead differently and you get a different tonal range. Ten such drums make a band spanning several octaves, one that can emulate a grand piano.

From oil drums, music, from oppression, joy. The human spirit wrenches beauty from bleakness. Is there a better example than this? A steel band in flight is the human heart singing.

The night after the marathon, I sat at the resort beach bar ready for supper. The electricity went off. I read the menu with my key chain light and ordered curry goat, a treat. The food is cooked in a separate building, one that I hoped had some kind of power. The bar’s concrete floor extends to the ocean; the waves wash gently against the edge where I sit. The restaurant has a roof but no walls. Beach walkers can drift through, and they do.

A young man suddenly sat down at my table and stuck out his hand. We shook. His approach was direct.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

He’d been in jail. The police arrested him for selling peanuts and cigarettes, he said

“They did? Man tried to sell me peanuts today.”

“They arrested me for selling without a license. You have to have a license.”

“Have you talked to the folks at the restaurant about working for food?”

He knew the answer to that question too. His situation was critical. He’d just gotten out that day. Unlikely, I thought, since it was Sunday. The earnest man wanted to raise enough money to get a bicycle and ride up and down the road to see if he could take tourists to the water park.

“You just got out today?”

“Yes.”

I handed him J$ 500 and wished him luck. He headed on down the beach, but stopped under a beach light—the power was back on. He stood there, head down, counting his money. Suddenly he turned aside, and sat down with two tourists resting in the shadows.

I could’ve given his spiel.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I Survived the Road to Negril


Keep your mind quiet, save energy, avoid drama... Good advice, all, for a runner on a trip to race a marathon. Good or not, the vicissitude of travel often leaves one vulnerable to intrigue. Where will you find shelter?

For purposes of my column the
Running Journal required more "running" than this story contains. But that's okay. I can put it here. From the Herald-Citizen, March 6, 2005.

**********

The three old men are drunk, and getting drunker by the mile. It appears they had a few drinks on their plane, and now they’ve brought a few beers on the bus with them, in a cloth cooler managed by one of their wives. She occupies a jump seat in the aisle beside me, stowing the cooler underneath.

Eighteen of us are packed tight into a Toyota bus not much larger than a soccer mom’s van. The last row of seats is piled high with luggage. We wind up a mountain overlooking Montego Bay heading toward Negril some 56 miles away.

The Caribbean is on our right, blue, sun-dappled and white-capped. The mountain, lush and green, is on our left; the road clings to the side of it. I have a window seat just behind the shotgun position, which is on the left in Jamaica, where cars travel the left side of the road. From my angle, every truck coming down the mountain seems on a collision course with us.

The inebriated old men aren’t worried; they raise a din of raucous banter, uproariously funny to them. They are from Michigan, something they remind us of frequently. They discuss people back home as if we on the bus want to hear about them. One complains about some woman there.

“Tell her to get a glass belly button so she can see where she’s going when her head is up her ass,” the head geezer says.

“Hee-hee-hee….” They have a laugh on the absent woman.

Head Geezer has a stiff white beard, and wears his baseball hat cocked high. He sits just behind the driver. The T-shirt stretched across his enormous belly asserts, “I survived the road to Negril!” That’s the road we’re on now.

I know next to nothing about Negril, except that the town advertises a beach and a marathon. Either one is a good enough excuse to come here on this December day. It is, however, the 26.2-mile race known as the Reggae Marathon that has drawn me to this tropical island.

Our driver wears a pinched look of perpetual worry. He shifts to third, and the Toyota crawls up the hill growling. While he loaded luggage prior to leaving the airport, Head Geezer was leaning across the seat, impatiently honking the bus horn, claiming it didn’t work. He continues badgering the man for operating a bus equipped with a horn that won’t blow. He won’t let it go. Finally the driver tries the horn button.

“It works,” he says earnestly. Geezer can’t hear it for the ringing in his own ears.

“Know what David Crockett said at the Alamo?” Geezer asks.

“Where’d all them damn roofers come from?”

“Hee-hee-hee.”

Our driver is a patient man. Put dreadlocks on him and he would be the stereotype of Jamaican Man—slightly built, small bones, small head. His cap puckers in the back like a fifth-grade little leaguer. He looks hungry.

His lean frame is the same as that of the great African marathoners. I expect you’d find strong roadrunners in Jamaica, if young men—women, too—had the requisite opportunity. The driver’s endurance today is of a different kind—abiding beer-drinking tourists from North America, geezers gone wild.

The young woman in front of me has fuzzy blond hair, bare shoulders and a diamond planted on the side of her nose. She seems to be helping our driver with his cell phone duties. One problem is to find it among the pile of litter on the console between them. I lean forward and ask her if she works for the bus company.

“No, I’m on holiday. I’ve been traveling around. This is the place I decided to hang out.”

She’s from Scotland, she says; her accent confirms it. I take it she is a part-time resident of Jamaica.

“It looks like the place if you like water and you like warm,” I say. She does.

I drop it. I don’t need to waste any energy socializing before the race. I especially don’t want to get caught up in the men’s circus across the aisle. The silent matron sitting between them and me provides insulation. I keep my marathon plans and my easy-to-remember name to myself.

This marathon hangs over me like doom. This will be my twenty-fourth race this year—a few too many. My body is worn out, and I feel myself sinking. I need a break from it.

So I can’t expect much in this race, especially in view of the heat here. My main hope is to get through it without a crippling overuse injury. Afterwards, if I can walk away, it will be like ducking a bullet.

This race has been on my calendar for months. There is nothing I can do now—except get the rest I know I must have. That means avoiding the orbit of the partying men. The emotional uproar sucks out energy worse than shoveling coal.

I want to look at the countryside. I gaze quietly out the window. The scene is a bit disheartening. The slopes are rocky and steep. Little frame houses propped on blocks tell a story of poverty. Most of the land is uncleared. There’s an occasional pasture—I spot a few cattle and some goats. A dozen horses stand listless in a pasture grazed to the bare ground. Elsewhere, vegetation is rampant, lush.

At one lush place, a naked man stands in a pool of ankle-deep creek water taking a bath. Head bowed, arms upraised, he pours water over his dreadlocks. His virile black body glistens under a burning sun. He rises from the water like a primeval god reigning over Eden. The image is at once innocent and sensual.

The striking scene slips past my window. I wonder if I am the only one who saw it. Bushes concealed the man until the bus was near him. You had to be paying attention at the right time. I listen, but no one says a thing about it. Certainly the Michigan beer drinkers didn’t see him; it would have touched off a barrage of salacious one-liners.

I wonder if any woman on the bus saw it. Will she remember tonight? And tomorrow on the beach when gentle waves whisper and a hot breeze lifts her hair, will she lay aside her book and gaze into the distance? Will she hold the secret in her heart, never telling anyone?

I don’t know. I’m just a man, not qualified to speak for any woman. All I saw was a man taking a bath in a creek. When I was a small boy my maternal grandfather and I did the same thing.

The men from Michigan, apparently ignorant of the bathing man, carry on with the same kind of rowdy comments as before. Harmless fun mostly. They’re just a little drunk, is all.

“How can you tell when David is lying?” Geezer wants to know.

“When his lips are moving,” the friend answers.

Our road winds through three towns. The streets are narrow, sometimes lacking even a sidewalk. The buildings come right up to my window. I look through the open doors into the stores and bars.

At one place a round woman in a cotton print dress wobbles heavily along a walk. At the precise moment we pass she angrily slashes a shrub with her machete. What does the gesture mean?
Geezer figures it out.

“Damn! You wouldn’t want to jump her!” he observes, reasonably enough. That touches off a round of predictable comments.

“Hee-hee-hee.”

The Michigan wife next to me endures her husband’s road show without a word. Twice, in passing, I make a friendly comment to her. Each time she meets me with stony silence. She hardened like concrete years ago.

Negril turns out to be seven miles of two-lane blacktop next to a beach—further south is Towne Centre, I will learn. From the road you can’t actually see the beach most of the time for the intervening trees, resorts, villas and restaurants. To the east is the Great Morass, a canopied swampland stretching to the horizon. The mountains have drifted away.

It has taken us two hours to cover the 56 miles. It seems longer. The driver makes the rounds of the resorts, dropping people off.

“Of all the things I’ve ever lost, my mind bothers me the most,” Geezer says.

I have successfully kept quiet and not spoken with the Michigan men. Despite that, at least one has learned what I am up to. The bus pulls up to Negril Tree House, where I plan to stay. As I get out of my seat, the man’s eyes meet mine.

“Good luck, Dallas,” he says.

How I blew my cover, is another story.