The evening continued into the night. We could have continued talking further. However, tomorrow was another day and we each had more roads to travel and more mountains to conquer. We made some calls to other schoolmates, my friend struggling to untangle the two ubiquitous cell phones he had dangling around his slender neck, fishing for them furiously whenever one or both of them rang. It was a curious site – a man being strangulated by technology. In Jamaica, between Cable and Wireless and Digicel, it is easy to become entangled to death in an attempt to stay in touch. We exchanged more embraces and farewells and committed to do just that, staying in touch that is, parting company with a feeling that was light-hearted and giddy.
Our camaraderie had been amazing but amazing also was the stubborn persistency of this negative view of the country held by my local brothers. Each time I had tried to put a positive spin on life on the island and each time they would rebound almost instantly into pessimism.
I referred to the ingenuity of the scam artists and their efforts to lift themselves and their loved ones out of poverty.
I argued that Jamaicans were not lazy but rather that they were uninspired and needed to be sparked by a right sense of purpose. I pointed at them – two fairly successful men who had never left the country but who had stayed to establish themselves with stability and showing measurable progress. But even so, my brothers refused to yield, continuing instead to bemoan the conditions of a country in freefall. I was like a voice in the wilderness, a naïve one at that who had been in “foreign” too long to completely comprehend the enormity of the calamity.
When asked how they have been able to get by without becoming contaminated, one friend introduced an interesting concept: circumnavigation – to avoid trouble they circumnavigated it. More laughter. If circumnavigate means to go completely around instead of through, then by their own reckoning they must be making some very wide circles. Even more laughter.
I went to bed that night and fell into a peaceful but sometime restless sleep aided by the cacophony of the amplified sound of crickets and toads whistling and chirping having conversations of their own. Circumnavigate? I had one whole week of circumnavigation ahead. If all went well, we would make it through unscathed.
A few hours later I was awoken to the gentle sounds of a morning rain and the buzzing fly-by of a solitary mosquito. It was June 11 and we were all alive, alive and well.
The buzzing fly-by of a solitary mosquito jolted my reverie as I listened to the gentle beat of rain. It was about 5:30 a.m. going on six. I found it amusing that in Ironshore there were no roosters. Rather, for wake up calls, they had mosquitoes – and alarm clocks. Later I became aware of the singing of birds. Here nature seems omnipresent.
The conversations of the night before hung and replayed in my head making me realize how central the theme of violence was in the consciousness of some who lived in Jamaica. This was an unusual adaptation for me. I was born and raised here for three decades of my life and the concept of violence that I knew was restricted to sling shots, playful fist fights, cowboys and Indians, “police and thief” playing out their silly dramas on television. As children we would re-enact these dramas by running through the bush or around the yard playing “gun shoot” with pieces of sticks going pow pow pow! But no one died or got hurt. We had open disputes about who got shot and who hadn’t for there would be no blood, no wound. It was all pretending. Then it was just for fun. Or so we thought. Some of us probably took it more seriously than it was meant to be.
In all my time growing up in Jamaica, I had never seen a real gun except in the holster around the waist of a police officer. I have seen rifles slung over the shoulders of passing soldiers. I even had one pointed at me once by members of the armed forces when a group of us had slept overnight in the parking lot of a police station in Spanish Town while hitchhiking during the 1970s. That was the closest I have ever come to what could be considered a “close call”. I had never even held a real gun or knew anyone who did.
Expression of violence was rare where I grew up, the most outstanding being a machete-killing spree in the village perpetrated by a mentally ill man. But this was an extreme and tragic exception, not the rule. I recall more mundane preoccupations such as trips to the beach, church and school functions, bammy (cassava bread) and breadfruit, ackee and saltfish such as we had for a late lunch yesterday shortly after our arrival.
I remember being raised in an environment where the golden rule was the rule: Love your neighbour as you love yourself; do unto others, as you would like them do unto you. Love God, respect your elders. Respect yourself. Go to school. Work hard. Do good and so on. And I was not alone. Most everyone I grew up with and knew lived their lives in close approximation to these principles. Maybe it was because I was on vacation; maybe it was because I was away too long but I could not as yet adopt this level of consciousness about the violence that presumably had overtaken this place. The preoccupation with violence was one version of reality, albeit profoundly visceral. For good or for bad, however, I saw a different reality and so with much anticipation I eagerly waited for the day to unfold with no thought of harm in mind whatsoever.
My friend and host offered to drive the Suzuki in an effort to alleviate any fear I may have had about driving on these maniacal roadways. Maybe he was trying to alleviate his own fears. In any event, I declined his invitation. Instead he would be a passenger today, along with my other traveling companion, as we hit the road at 7 a.m.. By now the rain had stopped and the sun already was making its presence felt gently but surely.
Our first stop was Canterbury, or more precisely a hill overlooking Canterbury. Years ago before migrating I had stayed numerous times on this prominent rise overlooking a part of the city of Montego Bay. From there I had witnessed the fire burning out at the refinery in Bogues in the early 1980s or earlier. I also remember another fire that had taken out a fair amount of the residences in Canterbury around the same time. Sparks from the conflagration in Canterbury had allegedly traveled up the hill to ignite the apartment building in which I once stayed.
Now as I stared down at the ghetto village of Canterbury consisting of improvised makeshift shacks nestled in the valley, it looked less like the picturesque and jarring conglomeration of hovels that it once was. It now appeared to be much tamer, smaller and somewhat ordinary, a notch down from the spectacular expression of poverty that it once represented. The area, a known squatters’ village, seemed now to be less congested as if reduced in density. Prominent throughout now were structures that had evolved into concrete dwellings, some of which looked even palatial, each at various stages of completion mingling with the remaining cabins to create an ironic blend of progress and stagnation.
The view reeked with irony. Fire started in this ghetto allegedly ruined more upscale dwellings a little distance away. Fire can be a great leveller. On the other side of the hill overlooking this ramshackle ghetto was Cornwall College, a prestigious and once elite high school for boys and probably still is. How many boys from Canterbury attended Cornwall College? I don’t know but for a boy living in Canterbury, Cornwall College may have appeared to be miles away, a case of so close and yet so far.
In Jamaica, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, exist side by side, sometimes one nestling in between the other in what appears to be a peaceful coexistence. It is hard however to imagine that no tension exists in this dichotomy, particularly when their respective expression is so extreme. Jamaica seemed to have enjoyed a measure of peace in the balancing of these two extremes as the trajectory of violent acts does not appear to be between social classes.
If anything, violence here appears to be intra-class, not inter. Nonetheless, the fear engendered by these class divisions can be measured by the proliferation of burglar bars. They are everywhere and if they could talk, they would speak of fear and loathing not peace and safety. If and when these polar opposites clash, one can only anticipate “wat a liiv an babaie” (what is left for by and by – leftovers). It would be the completion of unfinished social business. Combustible indeed.
As we drove down the hill and out of the area, the neighbourhood was waking up with the sound of moving cars and trucks, pedestrian traffic and the incessant blaring of horns. One tattered looking woman limbered along alone moving in the direction of Canterbury trying to eke out some space along the narrow edges of the street without a sidewalk. She made her way haltingly and gingerly against the flow of traffic, making herself small as she stood now in the gutters that lined the narrow asphalted roadway. Strangely, she reminded me of a tree I had noticed in the ravine a moment ago. The tree was still standing but was unique from all the others. Its trunk was charred and burnt black, held in its roots with only a thin fraction of its trunk supporting branches and a sparse foliage – burnt but still standing.
Across on the other side of the street a storefront was emblazoned with the graffiti of a political slogan denoting a specific allegiance. Word was that Canterbury, and other ghetto squatter communities like it, sprung from the bare earth like fruits cultivated by and for political campaigns as a means of gaining and maintaining territory. If correct, then Canterbury, and other places like it, act as vanguards and rear guards for vested political interests. These enclaves are like hot beds for political hooliganism representing a form of grass roots mockery of democracy that is based not on ideals but on crude values associated with need, greed and thuggery. And when the love is gone what then? What happens when the political pork barrel runs out? What happens when the political masters no longer need the services of these hungry henchmen? Where do the angry henchmen go to “make a living”? Wat a liiv an babaie!
Chances are these ghetto communes with their own subculture will continue to proliferate if they serve strong political ends. Within these neighbourhoods there will also be innocent women and children struggling to snap the cycle of poverty and strife. Some will make it, by fair or foul means, some won’t. Others will be burnt but still be standing there waiting for deliverance.
Caption: Canterbury tale: the Montego Bay squatter settlement now gushes forth impressive mansions among the hovels.