A Sign from God

As we settled into our temporary new home, the R_ Resort, the government was urging Jamaicans to store water and tinned food against the forecast fly-by of a tropical storm that is threatening to go hurricane.

Hurricane season is traditionally from July to October, as in the local rhyme I learned today:

July, stand by
August, come she must
September, remember
October, all over.

However, statistics record some whoppers as early as late May and as late as mid-November. I have asked a few Jamaicans around the R_ Resort what they think about the potential storm, and most of them just shrug. I ask them if they are storing water and tinned food, or thinking about storing water and tinned food, and they shrug again.

“Me nuh know,” seems the most common answer, and has also become my new favourite expression. “Me nuh know.”

Jamaica is getting kind of excited and prettying itself up for its fiftieth anniversary of independence, celebrations to take place Monday all over the island. The storm is forecast to pass south of the island at the same time, with heavy rains accompanying it. A fear of attending the celebrations in the rain seems the most common worry. Something about not wanting to ‘wet up me head’. Apparently that is a common cause of severe illness. Not sure how having a shower is different. I’ll have to explore that one further, as I’m not sure that medical science is aware of the phenomenon. Thousands might be spared illness just by not going out in the rain.

Not all people believe that the approaching storm is a natural phenomenon, though. A copy of the Jamaican Observer had this quote in it:

“Well, if it reaches, I believe it is a sign of a very purposeful God and is an indication that Jamaica and Jamaicans should reflect on their past and past deeds,” said Mrs. J_ C_. “We started our celebrations and we did not include God.”

Now, I’m not exactly sure how you include God in an anniversary celebration. I think that if you imagine a God that needs to be included in this kind of event, He, She or It is probably quite capable of including Him, Her or Itself. But perhaps that’s what J_ C_ is worried about; God might be sending the storm as punishment of some kind for the above-mentioned lack of reflection?

Maybe I’m over-analysing. Perhaps this is just a call for public prayer.

If so, you run into another problem in Jamaica, which is how do you choose to pray? I’ve been doing a little research, and it appears that Jamaica is extremely well-endowed, church-wise; more churches per capita than any other country in the world! That would explain the urge to include God in your celebrations.
However, how to go about it when your population includes:

Church of God, Seventh-Day Adventist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Methodist, United Church, Jehovah’s Witness, Brethren, Moravian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Rastafari, a handful of Jews, and a whole passel of Revivalist spiritual cults such as Kumina and Pocomania and a smattering of Vodouists from the Haitian diaspora. And a near-universal belief in Obeah, or black magic, no matter your religion.

Mrs. S_ W_ agrees with J_ C_. “We are a blessed country, but some of us take things for granted,” said S_ W_, who felt the threat from the tropical storm was a warning to Jamaicans.

A much more philosophical outlook was fatalistically spoken by Mr. S_ W_, who decided he wasn’t worried either way. In my first attempt to decipher Jamaican Patois on paper, it took me a while to figure this out:

“We nuh fear nuh storm enuh, because remember seh what to be must be.”

Got that right, S_W_.

God Bless Jamaica… but I think I’ll lay in some water and tinned food. Just in case. Because, what to be must be.

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Swinning with the Swedes

The R_ Resort isn’t, really. It’s more of an apartment hotel for airport expats, set in quite a dangerous neighbourhood but with a lovely garden, featuring a pool and a barbecue pit. The buildings are run down, flaking, the pavements are cracked, the doors don’t fit well, the windows either don’t open or don’t close. The single security guard reeks of ganja. There’s no restaurant, but there’s a filthy little shop that opens on request and sells things like Spam, potato chips, beer, and mustard. It doesn’t really stretch far enough to be called a resort. But the garden is, really, lovely.

We arrived on Friday afternoon, opened our suitcases and got out a change of clothes and our bathing suits. Unpacking wasn’t a priority, after the terrifying ride up from the airport. Within fifteen minutes we were soaking in the pool and admiring the lovely Bougainvillaea bushes, the heavily laden bananas and coconut palms, and the incredible Flamboyant trees. Those are the huge spreading shade trees whose tops become covered in brilliant orange flowers when they blossom. Exquisite.

The pool at the R_ was our first introduction to the Jamaican affection for ridiculous spelling and excessive rule-making. The rule-making seems designed more as a ‘cover your ass’ kind of thing, as we broke a rule immediately by bringing beer in bottles to the pool, but the owner said nothing at all. He just smiled. He’d sold us the beer, after all.

The sign that told us to ‘Swin at your own risk’ was paired with another that urged us to help maintain a healty pool and listed the rules:

  • Shower before entering
  • No food or glass containers permitted in the pool area
  • No running or horseplay
  • No diving or jumping into the pool. (We did both.)
  • Proper bathing costume at all time. No shoes. (No shoes?)
  • No seriously communicable diseases (Minor communicable diseases apparently okay.)
  • No open wounds, sores
  • No pisting (!)
  • Non-swimmers to be accompanied by an adult (Important, this one. It was on both signs. It didn’t mention whether the adult had to be able to swim.)
  • Not to be used after dark (We did, later on.)
  • In event of problem, inform manager
  • Manager takes no reasonability for injury or death from using pool and area
  • No dogs
  • Do not use if you are drinking alcohol or other drugs use

After jumping into the pool with our beers, we lounged around, enjoying the smell of the lovely flowers around us. A couple of cats were prowling the grounds, looking fat and happy. Lots of very cute little birds chirruped merrily around us. I felt – content.

As we were chatting about our first impressions a gaggle of incredibly blond people arrived with a flock of children. Everyone was horribly blond. We immediately suspected Swedes, and weren’t disappointed. One of the men settled nearby and introduced himself as Jan B_, and told us he and several other men from a Swedish engineering company were working at the airport, preparing to expand the runway. They were here for a two-year contract, ergo the family.

D and I are childless by choice, so when the little blond people began to get rowdy we climbed out, said goodbye to Jan, and returned to our suite, where we discovered that the shower was a bit tricky to use. A short investigation showed us that the hot water had been turned off, probably for quite a while, and the taps were either full on or full off – nothing in between. Once that was sorted and we were clean, we called for a taxi to take us grocery shopping.

A couple of hours later we were discussing whether to have a sandwich or actually cook something, when we were interrupted by a blast of music coming up from the garden. Before we could investigate properly there was a knock on the door, and Jan was there.

“It’s our tradition to grill meat on Friday evening,” he said, grinning. God, he is soooooo blond. It’s kind of scary. Almost blinding. “As you are new here, and as we are very noisy, we would like to invite you to join us. Most of the residents do. I promise we always finish by midnight, and the children are already fed and in bed. We don’t like to drink in front of them… but we do like to drink!”

D and I exchanged looks. “Shall we bring something for the grill? Shall we bring some CDs?”

“No, no – next week, if you want, bring some meat, or a salad. We have plenty. You’re new. Just come. Wear your swim suits. And we have music.”

I could already attest to that – the bass was coming through the wall. I started to laugh. I was expecting reggae: Bob Marley, Toots, Peter Tosh… even Byron Lee and the Dragonaires! Instead:

You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine, oh yeah!

Wow. Can’t get much more Jamaican than ABBA!

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Welcome to Jamaica. Have a Nice Day

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Tropical flowers and fruits tucked into a thirty-degree, one hundred-per-cent-humidity atmosphere; like a slap in the face when you step off of the plane and onto the air-stair. I was already overwhelmed by the greenery and the decay, and the Jamaicans themselves who had leapt up before the aircraft had left the runway (Seatbelt sign? Danger? No problem! Must turn on mobile!) so that they could confirm to those watching the aircraft land from the Waving Gallery that they actually were back in Montego Bay.

First impressions. You only get one.

So – the smell. Every place has its own, of course. Where I had come from, the Wet Coast of Canada, smelt of cedar and salt. Memories of Amsterdam smelled of hashish and tarmac, England of rain, grass and manure. Mo’Bay was a combination of the tropical flowers and fruits, ganja, and the worst cesspit and armpit ever. I was torn between gagging and breathing deeply, caught between the stench and the perfume.  The flight attendant at the door smiled at us. “Welcome to Jamaica. Have a nice day.”

D (my husband) and I were arriving so that he could take up his new job with Air J___, and for me to take up life as a woman of leisure. We were both sweating freely as we entered the terminal. Badly in need of a wash and a coat of paint – both us and the building – we were forced to hoist our overweight carry-on luggage upstairs for immigration. Escalators were still in the planning stages for arrivals. Soon come.

The concourse was relatively new, but the moving sidewalk was temporarily out of service. The signs directing inbound passengers were contradictory, but having travelled more than most we simply followed the locals until we entered a stifling room that really, really smelt of armpit, where we joined the long queues to get our passports stamped.

A group of deathly bored musicians – two men with guitars, a woman with a tambourine, and a third man sitting on an oversized African thumb piano built on a Cajon drum box – were listlessly running through Bob Marley covers at the back of the room. Smile Jamaica. The guitars were tuned to each other, but not to the thumb piano. Bass box, that was its name. Stir It Up. It occurred to me that the vibrations from that bass box might be a reason for the percussionist’s closed eyes, tented trousers, and the drool on his chin. The tambour player was wearing, like several women on the plane had been, a dress at least three sizes too small for her. A size eight sausage in a size five casing. I couldn’t imagine how they did up their zippers, much less kept them from popping… simply stop breathing while dressed? Redemption Songs.  A few faded posters for Doctor’s Cave Beach and Sandals Resorts, warnings against smuggling, a pile of garbage at the back of the room where those who hadn’t bothered to fill out their immigration and customs forms on the plane were labouring… all in all, a very uninspired arrivals hall. Three Little Birds.

The immigration officers seemed to be taking their coffee breaks while behind the desk, judging by the pace of action – the lines inched forward. With only one A319’s worth of passengers to process, the three officers on duty managed to string the procedure out for almost forty-five minutes before D and I were at the yellow line. As we waited for our turn, an unbelievably smelly man with his pants so low on his hips he was almost naked pushed past us with a broom. The cigarette butts that he was collecting in this clearly marked No Smoking area were drifting off one side of the brush as he quickly as he gathered them on the other – he wasn’t paying any attention, rather he seemed to be slyly inspecting the waiting vacationers.

“Pickpocket,” D said.

“You reckon?” We both laughed.

Forewarned by D’s company that any hint of planned residency would invoke the wrath of the system, we told the sullen woman behind the counter that we were on vacation. She glared at us, took five minutes to leaf through our documents, glared some more, and then slammed stamps into our passports.

“Welcome to Jamaica. Have a nice day.”

Downstairs again, a bottle-neck stairwell, to collect our luggage. Despite the hour in immigration the suitcases were only just starting to appear for collection. Dozens of uniformed porters in red caps were watching, ready to pounce as soon as an unwary tourist lifted a bag. We showed our tags to the customs official, declared ‘nothing to declare’, dodged the red-caps, and plunged out into the heat.

The cacophony of taxi-touts, bus drivers, locals meeting locals, tour operators and the honking horns of the over-crowded no-parking zones were nearly overwhelming. We stopped and stared around with our best ‘No!’ faces on, until I spotted D’s name on a signboard and waved toward it. D nodded, and we pushed our way through the crowd to our driver. Twice someone tried to take my bag to ‘help’ me with it, but luckily D’s imposing height and my ‘no’ face (D says it’s very scary) won the toss.

Once the bags were behind a locked door in a mini-van D and I settled in for our first driving experience in Mo’Bay.

First impression? Chaos. Mayhem. Madness.

I think I’m going to like it here.

Welcome to Jamaica. Have a nice day.

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