Thursday, September 22, 2011

Top of the Third, Part II: Getting Back to Myself in Jamaica

"Miss, you come look at my shop?”

At my elbow was a very dark woman with a neon-pink headscarf, urging me up to a second row of shacks further into the beach. I allowed myself to be led along, even though I had no money on me, and told her so. After all, I was just out for a walk, not expecting to find myself on the other side of the cracked looking-glass.

"S’okay. You just look.”

Aboriginal Jamaicans meet Columbus,
and the beginning of the end for them.
Rushed up the little sandy hill, I saw that the parallel rows of makeshift shops formed a kind of village, much larger than had at first appeared. Activity was everywhere. Men were whittling figurines, making fires, pulling seaweed from empty lobster traps; a group of women sat together on tree-trunks near tables of jewelry; three children ran after a couple of brown dogs. Some people watched us as I walked alongside Pink Lady to her shack, and again, I felt self-conscious as the only white person around. Why did I have to be so very white? A big problem I always have with visiting Caribbean resorts (where I serve as companion to my 83-year-old father, who loves the places and treats me to trips with him a couple of times a year) is the feeling of being the Oppressor; of being the hated or mocked American; of being the tourist too stupid to know that, although these resorts do employ thousands of locals or in other ways provide livelihoods, they ultimately deplete resources and exploit people. I love traveling more than anything else, but only as a gracious participant, not a greedy consumer. Perhaps I'm too sensitive or totally off-base, but I often feel very uncomfortable when I'm visiting poor nations on "vacation" (which is itself purely a first-world concept; most of the Jamaicans I came to know during my trip had never left the island, let alone the Saint James Parish).

After perusing Pink Lady's standard wares and promising to come back with money, I walked back to the water, and made friends with the wet white dog that had greeted me earlier. She was so sweet.

"Dat is Xena, da Warrior Fisher Dog. She catches tirty feesh a day."*

A man who introduced himself as Chris leaned against his own shack and laughed as I bent down to hug the dog, who was generous with her kissing, wagging, and happy eyes. With pride in his voice, Chris told me about her puppies "back in America," taken home by a tourist last year -- as if every Caribbean dog dreamed of such an honor. I threatened to steal Xena, too.

"You steal dat dog, you break Ev-er-ee-bodee's heart on dis beach," was his solemn reply as he motioned up and down the rows. I had to laugh. With three large dogs and an untold number of cats already invading my house and porch in Philadelphia, smuggling a Jamaican fishing dog into the mix had only been my weak attempt at a joke. "I would never do that, Chris," I said as I tried to keep a straight face.

Some of my beach friends (left, Chris [Lakers shirt], Johnny
[straw hat], Smokey Joe [pink crocs], Ryan [far right]).*
Four or five guys who also worked on the beach walked by just then, and casually invited me to sit and have a drink with them. They look surprised but happy when I shrugged and said, "Sure, why not?" Really, what's the worst that could've happened? (I know, many of you are thinking, "Plenty!") Guiding me over to an empty shack usually occupied, they said, by a Rastafarian ("Rasta-Mon not worken' today"), they directed me to sit on a petrified tree stump (the best seat in the house) as they took their own places on rocks and other stumps under the roof tarp amid the empty shelves. For a moment, I was a tiny bit uneasy when eight to 10 men sat or stood near me inside the small space, but soon one of the guys rolled a joint, everybody laughed and smoked, and the conversation -- and what a conversation! -- was a-rolling.

* These photos are used with much appreciation through the gracious permission of Kristin Dewey, author of the blogs "Cokie the Cat: Hollywood Insider," and her brand new "Notes for My Next Life."