Day 4, “Roots”: Jamaica 2012, SCIIIx (LOTSWild)
Before I completely leave Day three let me just say the German Bar was cool. I walked past it and saw the flag. It drew me in because there were only 2 people sitting there, on the cliff, and cheeseburgers were $350J. I was also curious as to what defined a German Bar. I hoped they might be playing techno or something, but the flag was the only thing I could discern as being distinctly German. Maybe some German people were hanging out somewhere else, LOL, also part of the question. I overheard a fellow at the bar lamenting about his sailboat which he used to keep tied right there off the cliff. A hurricane smashed it along with his hopes of renting it out. He ended up being the owner of the bar. His son, back in South Carolina, worked at or ran the Charleston Sailing School, one of the places I have considered for more advanced sail training – with an eye toward captaining my own ocean worthy vessel one day. As I found myself more and more at home with this fellow, the cheeseburger, and Red Stripes the title of the bar vexed me more. I left not having any idea why it was the German bar. Well, I don’t know, isn’t Burger a German word?
So officially on to the next day;
One of the things I really enjoy about staying with the Jamaican people is the sharing of what I call roots culture. That’s sort of a catch all phrase that has different meanings depending on all sorts of backgrounds and assumptions. I’ll define it as things that do the following; define a geographical cultural area, encourage both self-sufficiency and awareness of total dependency on natural cycles and the Earth, and expose the strengths and vulnerabilities of a certain group. Farming, for example, bonds people of a geographical region, it promotes both dependence on greater things and a fierce self-reliance. It showcases an intimate knowledge of the land and plants and can also mean distance from trends, the in-thing, or an absence of certain education. Let’s put this in really plain language; hillbillies. While some may choose to return to the holler after lengthy travels and educational pursuits, some never left. But they can build a car, shoot anything that moves, grow great corn, and be wonderfully genuine. Now add a little bit of history, the passing of knowledge from generation to generation, and the strange disconnection that most of us in the modern world have experienced from such things, and you get; Roots. Grounding, anchoring, solid. They are what hold us steady when storms want to rip us up, be they political, financial, whatever. They are carriers of civilization, these roots. Existing closer to a more primitive lifestyle, for the most part, they are available and useful as the towers of Babylon shake and move with the wind. They are your family history, your language, your people, and even more fascinating the things that YOUR people had in common with MY people. Real oneness, and real diversity, without a political mandate. Sorry – HA! I’ve done well so far, just be glad you don’t have to read my college papers.
So Mary’s neighbor Ronnie is a fellow I knew from back in the day. In fact, one of his daughters saw us training out in the yard one morning and remembered me. It’s hard to believe - the memory of Jamaican people for faces. For her it was perhaps more; on our first trip we were learning roots knowledge from a Rasta - things like natural medicines from plants. Ronnie was panicked about a worsening infection in his daughter’s foot from a nasty glass cut or something. We treated her to the best of our ability using this old knowledge since he couldn’t afford a doctor and she got better. Now she is 24 years old, she was 14 when I had known her then. Her dad Ronnie is a tough dude fallen on hard times. He is one of the squatters – folks who moved into the Negril backwoods long ago, before any interest in deeds and titles, and built a house. Some houses were, still are, little wooden sheds with a dirt yard. Others, like Ronnie’s, are fairly complex concrete structures built to survive the next hurricane and resist nature’s onslaught on Sun and rain. Some of these locals have managed to sell their parcel to foreigners who then discover the seller has no deed or title. Even more interesting is how some locals have sold the same piece of land to different foreign buyers over and over and over. But when they are given the chance to purchase the land from the government they have to pay up or be removed. That removal is in process now, has been, and will continue to be for a while. Ronnie is on the edge. He is trying to sell his place for $100,000US but doesn’t own it. The government is going to evict him shortly unless he can pay the actual price of $20,000 each for two lots. When he’s gone they will bulldoze his buildings so he has no claim to the property and someone will finally have a piece of paper that looks as official as you can get in Jamaica.
Someone hit Ronnie in the face with a pipe not too long ago so most of his vision is shot in one eye. The other eye isn’t great. He walks with a cane and a severe limp, remnants of some accident that left his leg shattered and scarred. His constant pain is what brought us together for our meeting this morning, my fourth day. He asked if I had any pain reliever, and I did – BC powder or Goodies (looks great at an airport security check let me tell you). It’s a critical part of my first aid plan since I get migraines on occasion that wipe me out. I gave him two powders. I later learned he made a salve with them and rubbed them on his leg, easing the pain for the first time in weeks. I said, “Try eating them”, he made a face. Well Ronnie offered to take Zach and I up into the bush, to learn some history, some plant knowledge, good old fashioned Rasta wisdom – Roots.
We found ourselves weaving through a maze of trails that followed parallel to White Hall Road up through some very African looking plains. A young man who called himself Junior also joined us with his two kids. He was taking his little girl for a walk to teach her “history and plants”. My kind of guy. There’s a lot to be written about Junior later on, this was a momentous day!
There was some minor exchange between Ronnie and Junior over us, the visitors. I think Ronnie was worried about losing us to a charming new guide who would then also benefit from some potential tip, but Junior responded that no such thing would occur. All but 20-30% of the conversation, remember? Heh heh. I was a little more sensitive to not run off and leave hobbling Ronnie and his one eye when we saw the Cotton Tree. Ronnie explained that National Geographic had studied the tree and taken samples of it. Rumors surrounded it as regards wishes, healing, and special properties, as they would any living thing that had survived over nine centuries, perhaps ten. The branch I sat on was as large as virgin forest trees back home – many times what I could reach my arms around. Junior displayed a wide base of knowledge doing very much what I love to do back home; picking leaves to eat or smell, showing properties, odors, tastes, and how to use different parts. We gathered almonds planted at the base of a small castle long ago and perused crumbling remnants of the Whitehall Great House. Rubber sap turned to, well, rubber, in our hands and the mythical Leaf of Life found its way into our increasing bundle of tea and medicine herbs.
On our way home we visited some secret hangouts; rock overhangs with old car seats for comfort, a cock isolation unit, and hand built tarp frames. Yes, a cock isolation unit is where you put diseased male fowl so they don’t infect the flock. As it turned out Junior operated, in addition to his massive charcoal production system, the local cockfighting ring – in his yard. The thing was complete with a huge cage, concrete walls, elevated seating and a tin roof; amenities he described as “creative, different, something unusual to set I apart from the all the others.” Little did I know what a big deal it was!
His charcoal was produced the same way we do it in the mountains, by burying hardwoods and burning them sans oxygen then digging out the charred wood. It sold to restaurants and handcart boys, roadside meat cookers and the like. Here is a man who knows how to wield a machete. Junior was a first rate farmer, too. He understood pollination, hydration, soil, sun, and fertilization. So much so that his little abode surrounding the UFC (ultimate fighting cock) Cage was dotted with peppers, corn, yams, and beans. I told him about cock fighting back home, that it was illegal but folks still do it. Especially where I live. We talked about farming, and children.
After we returned to the hill I asked Kevin, a primary caretaker and assistant on the hill, what a good tip for these fellows would be. His response; “Five US would be ok but ten would make him really happy.” I felt like Junior was a good guy to know and wanted to establish him as a contact for future potential camps and visitors, a guide of sorts and trusted fellow. “Fifteen”, came Kevin’s response. Jamaicans take care of one another, and references and tips find their way back home soon enough. Zach and I pitched $10 US a piece in as a thank you, a move that somewhat shocked Junior I later found out. Sometimes, though, a good connection is like the credit card commercial: priceless. Anything I needed that Junior could provide was in reach, now or later. More importantly I met someone I could consider a friend and invest in that both now and in the future. I had a good feeling about him. Ronnie…well, we didn’t forget him, all he asked for was a few smokes and a shot of rum. I learned he had a growing credit balance at the little roadside store so I did what I could there before leaving.
Learning to get a taxi seems like an easy thing, right? It is. In fact it’s hard not to get a taxi since every other car beeps at you to see if you want a ride somewhere. Beginners, however, may benefit from a short tutorial. I’ll use our jaunt on Day 4’s evening as the learning context.
Downtown Negril is marked by a noticeable road feature called the Square, or the Roundabout. The Roundabout is just like it sounds; roads converge from 3 directions, drivers yield to those already in the circle and you continue around it until you exit in your desired direction. Don’t think that means driving it yourself is a piece of cake, but that’s the theory anyway. The place is a central hub of Negril activities. It’s usually bustling with all sorts of things; money changers, fruit vendors, a supermarket, bank, sugar cane carts, and lots of people catching rides. If you think of Negril as a wheel, and the roundabout a hub, it’s a certain small fee from anywhere to the hub, or from the hub to anywhere. To go from one place through the hub to another place is like traveling from one spoke of the wheel to another. It’s twice the price of just getting to the center. For that reason I often walk to the roundabout, or get a ride to the roundabout and walk from there to my destination. If time or body function limits walking then I check my budget to double the fare. The going rate as of February 2012 was around $100J for any given one way local distance to or from the roundabout, that’s about $1.25US at the current rate of exchange. When I hear an approaching car or van beep behind me I shake my head without looking so they know to pass on by, but if I want a ride I just point a finger out. Most of the time I’ll shout my price at the driver and where I want to go to make sure we’re on the same page before I get in, especially if it’s something unusual or for more than one person (listed price above is per person).
Brian, Chris, and I walked down the long dusty Whitehall Road, turned left onto the highway that heads toward the roundabout, and flagged a taxi. Our goal, or my goal anyway, was some place on the cliffs toward the West End that had a good stereo, cheap drinks, and most important a place to swim. I couldn’t remember any specific places other than Rick’s Café which is internationally famous, and Xtabi. “600J to Rick’s Café”, I called to a driver who stopped for us. He nodded. We climbed in, ever alert to the stream of motorcycles and cars whizzing by and beeping. Zoom! Off we went. If there’s room expect the driver to cram another passenger or two in, drop someone off, get another, and so on. If you live in a big city this is old news but for a country boy like me it’s quite the novelty. Walking the road out to the west end is fun on one hand but has some dangerous curves with tight concrete walls – it takes some thinking and alertness to keep from getting run over. A buck might be worth your leg.
Before we get into Rick’s I want to hit another point on Taxis. One afternoon coming home from the beach a driver called out “Taxi?” as I walked past. I shook my head assuming his price would be too much – he was hanging out in the park right past the resort area – a shaded grove of trees and grass where Jamaicans often visit for holiday. I was headed to the roundabout to save money. He insisted I talk to him – here’s the fine line that’s a hard study. You cannot get hung up by every person that wants to sell something or talk, but it’s universally rude to just walk away. On my first few days I walked away from more than a few folks. This guy reminded me to slow down and show more respect for others; a lesson that turned out favorable later in the trip many times over. He said $500J to my destination, I shook my head and turned around. He yelled, a bit forcefully, “Hey, come talk to me.” I decided to, I mean, he’s either going to change his price or not, I don’t have anything to lose. He asked what I wanted to pay, “$200J”, I told him. “Get in”, he said. Well, that was easy. I looked at him closely - I could kill him if I had to. You probably think I’m kidding. On the ride he said, “Don’t walk away from someone when they are talking to you.” And it seemed like sincere advice, not a reprimand. It was. He was appreciative for the work and doing what he could to make as much as possible, that was all. I apologized and explained how hard it is, as a tourist or visitor, to NOT offend someone given the demands of the environment, the hassles, the lack of understanding culture and language, and the constant need to push folks aside. He also understood these things and we seemed to connect from one true person to another, all details aside. And that’s where the deeper secret is.
Can you reach communication, intuitively, without words, without getting hung up by station or skin color, language or even superficial actions, dress or worth? The Jamaicans are there, ready to receive, ready to relate, but we have been taught to send shallow signals, not the deep transmissions of a partly telepathic people. Roots; what MY people and YOUR people have in common.
NOT what was at Rick’s Café! LOL. Zach said, “This must be where all the white people hang out.” Ha! Sure, and that’s not all bad. Sometimes a stranger in a strange land can benefit from a company of peers. The place was slam packed with all aged visitors, drinks were expensive, and the smiles were not warm. But, for what it was, it was cool. I just wanted a place to swim. I pushed through the crowd and found a view of the divers. These hard bodies really put on a show. I haven’t heard Brian talk about anything on the whole trip as much as these guys jumping into the water from high places. And sure, it’s impressive, but I wanted to do the jumping and wasn’t excited about the massive crowd or the pushy tip seekers that demanded money for jumps and to simply watch the jumpers. Give me a break.
I followed the stairs down to the water – that blue, clear, hypnotic liquid that called to all the sore spots and stiff joints in my body. I had been sticking to my hammock and tent floor. Not from sweat but from that “scratch” I took the first night, on my back. Somewhere in the scratch was something more like a hole, and it wasn’t fully healed. The trip to the ocean was more than idle pleasure, it was medicine – I needed to get that thing healed up quick. Much to my horror there were guys at the bottom asking for tips there too, just to swim. You have got to be freaking kidding – and of course they were asking stupid prices. Well, I did my thing and got them down to $100J, the Universal ‘at least you’re giving me something’ barter, and started shedding layers. I had a sinking feeling though, this wasn’t at all what I was going for. “Is this what Negril had become?” I thought to myself. Sick.
The water took my worries. It took my stress, my questions, even the sting in my back. For a moment I was free floating – mindful of the dropping bodies from cliffs on high, just above, but quite blissed. About that time a man yelled, “Hey! Go round da corner mon.” Confused, as I often seemed to be, I acted like I knew exactly what he was talking about and pointed around the rock cliff. “Ya mon, stay close.” He jumped in beside me and motioned to stay next to the rocks. I hardly had time to wonder why when BOOM! A heavy body hit the water a few feet to the right. Oh yeah, the cliffs. Turning the corner I swam to a small cove with rocks jetting up out of the water. This was nice. The fellow gave me a hand up onto a rock adjacent to his own. He smiled, legit. No crowds, no eyes, no nothin’ but blue water and serenity. Here came his buddy, “Ok, it’s on”, I thought. Naa. I can’t carry money in the water, they should know that. But then the man who invited me around the corner whipped out a wad of Jamaican bills, the water didn’t slow him down a bit. The two argued for a second over who had actually seen me first, unaware that I followed every word. Smiley said, “I’ll take you through the cave.” Go with the flow Spence, just feel it out and roll. I was so past spending any money at this point and made that clear and said that deep sea caverns with mermaids wouldn’t get more than $100J out of me. He was disappointed at first but didn’t give me any crap, and then perked up and said, “I’ll take you anyway, come on mon!” I guess he was tired of hustling drunk would-be swimmers up the stairs – I can’t imagine. So in we went.
Each 15 second period of time was marked by a rapidly increasing awareness that this whole cave thing was pretty sick. As in ill. You know, a good thing. There was some needed instruction happening as he described where to put each foot and what to hold on to. We left the open sea through a small fissure that went from surface level to far overhead, scarcely wide enough to squeeze through sideways. The gentle waves gushed and gurgled below my feet, glowing an iridescent blue, being the only source of light in the darkening interior. Before long I couldn’t see my feet and we had to step across a water hole about 3 feet across. “Jump in here”, he said. I looked closer, downward. Why would I jump into water of an unknown depth in a black cave lined with sharp rocks in every direction? He knew what I was thinking. “It’s sand, there’s a beach back here.” I chuckled as I saw myself in this character, the guide. My summer camps are filled with these types of things, pushing comfort zones, habitats I call home and places I love, and know, so alien to outsiders and rich with awe and a touch of fear. I hopped into the water and hit invisible sand about two feet down. Now it was fun. We walked on into the blackness and sat down on a beach so dark all I could see was the faint blue glow of the ocean sneaking in under the rock wall. I was thinking to myself, “Man, this would be a great place to – “, when he said, “OK!” Ok what? He waded to the black wall, underlined by a gurgling liquid sky, and said (not exactly what I was hoping for), “Come right after me, don’t wait, go right when I go, ok?” . . . “And stay low, down by the sand.” Uh. Swoosh, he was gone. Under the rock wall, back out through the cave, except, under the cave. I got down on my knees and looked through. I could almost imagine getting a breath in the little pockets of air below the rock and water, slowly, carefully. Then a wave filled the entire cavity forcing me back a few feet and positively dashing any hopes of having some breathing room in the narrow passage below and between the stone surfaces. No problem, this guy ends up in here with people more inebriated than me, I got this. So I did, and it was raw. As in really good.
After it was over I told my guide about Chris and offered him $5 US to take the young lad through just as he did me, but to keep a closer eye on him. Chris was up for the challenge. I saw that the experience really was worth a tip and was impressed that the fellow took me for a dollar. I think Chris’ experience was equal to or greater than my own. The flock of Jamaicans huddling around the water’s edge asked me again for a tip to swim, I was done with it. I dismissed them with an air of boredom, tired of their questions. That unlocked something, “Where you stay?” asked one of them. This loaded question says everything about who you are and what resources you have, who you know, and what you are looking for. I never give exact details for security reasons but usually answer, “Up Whitehall Road, Good Hope.” Puzzled looks are the most common response. “Who you know up dere, where you stay?” “You know where dey have dem cockfight?” I said, “There’s one tonight.” Suddenly the guy erupted in a flurry of motion and words calling out to all the other men around the water, climbing the cliffs, signaling in a hard to follow announcement that a cock fight was happening up Whitehall Road this evening, and they should all go. More than a few faces turned my way, “Who dis white guy dat knows about da cockfight?” Heh heh. Let them wonder. I turned and climbed the long, stone, staircase up to the Café in search of my party.
After watching a few more superb athletes fall into the water to the roar of the crowd we turned our attention to the sunset. That glorious feature of west Jamaica – low clouds, a rainbow of color, reflection on the water – our company at the café grew more silent as cameras snapped and fires grew along the water’s edge. We left Rick’s, not to return. I took the guys by Blue Cave Castle and also showed them Winton’s sister’s place. A funny thing happened, like a level-up in this strange reality video game. I asked a woman to make a phone call and apologized for only having $20J, which is around a quarter in US currency. She looked at me, almost offended but not, probing to see whattagowan wi dis. I said in thick accent, “Sorry sistren, it all I have, local call.” Chris and Brian waited in the wings. As she came around and began to fish her phone out of a bag a street Rasta sitting down near her, in front of a little wooden shop, said, “Him ruff, him a ruff mon.” The woman looked at me again, with different eyes. I stared at the Rasta, “Respect bredren.” He nodded and ripped off some fast patois about how I was a Jamaican to the woman who kindly gave me the phone. I found a hundred J in my pocket and gave her after the call, just as a thank you. The Rasta called out as I was leaving, “You know tings mon, good tings.” I nodded. Once again I felt that deep connection, the language beyond words that happens so quick on the jungle island. I have pondered since that night what he was talking about. I think if I make something up and it feels right in the heart, it is right. Maybe dems da tings I know.
Before we draw day 4 to a restful close; sword forms and all, I’ll share Chris’ yoga lesson. Winston had a surprising background of experience and education that I would never have expected. I perceived through his excitement about martial arts that his story was true; he had trained at various martial arts academies throughout the west Indies and was a full on Yoga Instructor. Winston, meet Brian, top shelf martial artist and former school owner in the Iyengar Yoga system. Your people, my people. There in the quickly fading light of a golden sunset, along the cliffs, Winston and Chris assumed the Lotus position and discussed body mechanics, breathing, and other stuff. I stared out at the black water and was moved by the mystery of it all. That, and getting back home with these guys.
“600J, Whitehall Road!” “Where?” “Up by the cockfight.” “Oh ya mon, you a go up dere by da cockfight?” “True.” “Ya mon get in.”