Flight through clear skies with some turbulence led home. A funny thing home is – a place where one feels a sense of belonging while not actually living there. I sat between two fellow travellers, both strangers to me and to each other, both loquacious, each sharing this strange connection to a land in which they had one foot in and the other foot out. They both spoke passionately, at times with their heart and at other times with their head, as to why it was so. They spoke with humour and with pathos, with a mixture of love and disgust, with amazement and with a sense of incredulity, and all about the same place – Jamaica land we love …and hate. In this they were like so many others on this flight – quick to bemoan the ills that plagues this desperate Island and just as quick to serenade with ode its devilish beauty.
In three and a half hours the middle age woman to my right, generous and big hearted, recounted her deep Jamaican upper middle class pedigree, the rich resilience afforded her by her roots that enabled her to surmount tremendous personal odds while managing a successful business. And in this expression, she railed about the costly experiment that purged Jamaica of its wealthiest and brightest minds during the Manley years of the seventies.
She sharply criticized the lazy irresponsible wiles of the lower class while lamenting the way her “white” skin was held against her, equated as it was with the face of an oppressor. Wrapped up vividly in this woman’s recounting, perhaps even oblivious to her, was 500 years of unresolved contradictions of racial strife, class struggle and national pride.
To my left was a much younger man of darker hue, equally engaging, who for our benefit unwound his own multi-racial background and deep Jamaican heritage. He was returning, he said, to surprise his mother for her fiftieth birthday celebration, his father and uncle already aware as to which pig would be butchered for the big feast. This young man too had his challenges, which he surmounted, settling himself in Canada and supporting his brother while pursuing his own passion as a chef, while holding down a full time job as a coach driver at the same time. His food for thought this minute was politics – the pervasiveness of it in Jamaica; the inescapable division it seems to create, pitting one group against the other in bitter confrontation, oftentimes with fatal consequences.
And so, they spoke, the man on the right and the woman on the left neither having greater or lesser claim to being Jamaican than the other. Their social and educational parameters differed for sure, their views divergent. Had they not been seated together, or had I not been there to mediate, they likely would not have said much to each other. And yet there was a common thread in their passion, their struggle to love and to understand the reality of what it means to be Jamaican. Imagine, if you will, this conversation being held many times over and over again in this troubled land, held in fact anywhere in the world where Jamaican’s are to be found. Imagine a Diaspora in dialogue with itself about a little Island with a big heart bathed by sunshine and in a history of blood and fire. Imagine “out of many”, one, trying to find common ground.
Minutes before touchdown as the aircraft made its approach into Montego Bay, as if on cue, my seatmates became suddenly silent as if in subdued anticipation. My partner and travelling companion had been seated elsewhere in the aircraft but instinctively all heads turned, hers as well, window-side to witness the sight as the profile of the island’s shore emerged to greet us with its iridescent liquid colours, looming verdant hills and waiting friends and relatives. My spirit, as if touched by this beautiful imagery, soared as the plane made its steady descent into the hot rhythmic sound of a land awash in colours looking like everlasting sunsets; where men and women dance on flaming rocks while making the world dance with them. Blessed by nature and cursed by the deeds of a few less than noble, this country has lived long and hard through many trials and tribulations. And yet, the soul of the country continues to survive its deep travails, remaining warm and true, its vibe hauntingly frightening and happy at the same time. Landing was exhilarating, smooth and safe.
As we embarked through the newly renovated airport, the quiet anticipation continued. When I was here four years ago the airport had the feel and look of a colonial outpost. Now with its updated and modern look, it was clean, well lit, felt spacious and organized, as if poising itself for the twenty first century.
Unchanged, however, was the screw-face countenance of the officials who displayed that stern officious looking stare typical of low-level functionaries trying to come across as being crucially important. Some looked extremely young but all in all if you were able to break through their cold façade you by chance would discover waiting smiles and a pleasant welcome of recognition, and the camaraderie of a compatriot. Here and throughout my one-week stay I was easily lured into thinking and feeling that I had come home. Everybody looked eerily familiar, as if I knew each one, and that they also knew me. This made me wonder if this “knowingness” was real or simply an illusion born from over familiarity.
Among the mainly Jamaican disembarking passengers, the anticipation was palpable – there were family reunions to be enjoyed, parties to go to and business ventures to be pursued. Some more sombre had funerals to attend and loved ones already passed away to memorialize. One woman bore a wreath in her hand. In this and in many other ways, we were like human beings everywhere, living out universal themes of love, loss and joy.
One friend, whose identity I had no doubt about, met us with great glee and uninhibited affection. Neither of us have a gay lifestyle, but we could not help but later reflect on the imprudence of two grown men openly embracing in the middle of a Jamaican airport. We laughed at the serious prospect of being the centre of an unfolding melee. In fact, we were delirious most of the time, high on sunshine and solidarity, laughing from the moment we met at the airport where we secured a rented a two-door Suzuki four-wheel drive, in no time immersing ourselves in all things Jamaican. It was as if I hadn’t left.
Our first stop took us to Ironshore, a residential community east of Montego Bay situated in the foothills overlooking the coastal lowlands. Here large and ostentatious dwellings rested inhabited by some of Jamaica’s well to do, a significant number of them being “returning Jamaicans”. Here we would camp for the evening in a rented flat until daybreak when we would venture out on a road trip through the Parish of St. Elizabeth.
For now, it was out to Jerky’s on the western side of town for jerk chicken, pork, libation and more talk. It was already dusk and the place hummed with music, noise and loud chatter and a warm congenial feel. The mood was jovial, a stark contrast to the quiet, staid, restrained and reserved social setting in Toronto from which I had just emerged. Here the lid was off, everything seemingly raw and out in the open. And so between sips and bites of chicken and pork peppered with hot spices, the conversation turned easily from raucous laughter and frivolous recollections of times past to the dire destruction of the island through uncontrollable violence, corruption and crime. My friend and old schoolmate who should know more than most about these things, painted a grim picture where criminals acting with impunity offered security for a price while those responsible for law and order engaged in criminal acts making it almost impossible to distinguish between crooks and lawmen.
Guns and gangs, the “shottas” as they are called, are reportedly running amok and afoul of laws that no longer seem capable of sustaining a sense of order, turf wars and incendiary conflicts with homicidal consequences becoming the order of the day.
Soon we were joined by another schoolmate friend of 33 years ago. He was a doctor now holding his own and doing well, gearing up to send his two boys to university. Friendships last long here in this land of “Brethrens” but as we laughed and exchanged embraces it was not long before we got back to the common theme with Jamaican scam artists taking centre stage. Bit by bit, my two compatriots broke down the fraud of the lottery hoax.
The hoax had sprung from Jamaican soil onto unsuspecting international victims – mostly U.S. Citizens – whose names had been obtained from lists generated by the now popular off shore agencies set up in Jamaica’s freeport areas by foreign companies looking for cheap labour. These lists could be accessed for a good price. Victims getting such a call would hear the likeness of an eloquent American accent offering a big financial windfall in exchange for a small administrative cost. Meanwhile, the caller would be no one but Joe Blow bredda from around the corner who maybe can’t read or write that well but who knows how to pull a fast one to rake in lots of dollars, enough to live large and drive expensive cars without the support of any other discernible means of livelihood.
We laughed in disbelief at the absurdity of it and of the irony of it, of greed meeting greed – the scam artist cold and rapacious on the one hand and the gullible and foolish victim on the other. There seems to be no limit to the ingenuity and stupidity of greed. At the hint of something going wrong, the anxiously waiting victims would be advised that difficulties had arisen and that the windfall payout would be delayed for sometime, however, not to worry, rest assured all is well now that the FBI are investigating. For this, an FBI fee would be required and here the money tree would shake again and the scammers would laugh all the way to the bank, if they had one. We, with sick humour, laughed too. Here we laugh and cry equally about the same sad thing, somewhat like the sun trying to shine through on a rainy day hopefully making a rainbow with a pot of gold waiting illusively at the end of it.
A few days later, I saw a tee shirt that explained who the FBI was: Female Body Inspectors. And I laughed then too.
Caption: Defiant Land Rover, battered but refusing to decay, sits in the verdance of the mountainous Jamaican country side, a metaphor for the country.