Monthly Archives: November 2010

Blue Lagoon

In Portland Parish are some of the most beautiful beaches stretching from port Antonio to Manchioneal.   I spent a night at both ends of this 30km strech which is surrounded by mountains on one side and crystal waters on the other.   As I had little to do over the three days i spent there I ended up walking the stretch from both directions looking for beaches to swim and to see a bit of coastal beauty.  The roads zig-zags across bluffs passing some villas and local villages.  But the striking thing was that in the 30km that I passed there were only three public beaches.  The rest are closed to villas/hotels or paid beaches.  This is something that was quite frustrating, being used to coasts that are always public having ot pay 5-10 USD just to get to the water, seemed simply wrong.   On my last day in Port Antonio I spent 3 hours walking till I found two amazing spots.  The first is the Blue Lagoon.. The blue lagoon from the movie.  The waters are mixes of azures and greens.   I take a jump into the lagoon from a pier and notice that the water a foot underneath the surface is warmer the on top.  My understanding of thermodynamics thrown up for a loop.  Then I taste it, and realize the water on the surface is fresh water and foot down is saline. then it dawns on me that the Lagoon has an interesting property of having mountain runoff that isn’t mixing and stays on top while the sea feeds the lower waters.

From there I dry and hit the road again and find a really fun beach.  Winnifriend Beach. Which is a local beach with Jamaican’s and travelers enjoying a warm day.  Young people drinking, playing football.  Families swimming.  So happy to kick my shoes off and enjoy some fried Chicken, Festival (a type of fried dough) and couple of glasses of Rum and Pepsi while the sun was setting.  I spent some time with a lady at her food shack and her four children. It was a linguistic adventure. the youngest weren’t speaking the 10 year old kid was talking such heave Patois that I could barely make out anything, while his older sister was translating into Jamaican English.  While mom was trying to convince me to stay and meet a local girl that would be a perfect fiance for me.   She says “you’re brown, and her a black child, you too make beautiful brown babies”.   I thanked her and graciously declined the kind offer.  but it truly a lovely evening.  After it starts getting late I help her bring her pans back out to the road, and catch a passing cab to town.

Ohh if you find yourself in the neighborhood.  Stop by Boston Beach and try the finger licking Jerk Chicken.  This is where it comes from.


Jamaica by Land

By Taxi:

Tourist towns in Jamaica have official rates, and local rates. At the airport terminal the taxis cost 25-35 US to take you to town.   Though I got  tip that one needs to only walk down the road to flag a local taxi. I saw some Jamaican ladies standing that showed me where to stand. Hopped into a local taxi and the rate was 90 cents, so about 40 times cheaper.  To give credit, where credit is due Jamaica is the only third world country where a local cabbie never tried to rip me off.  Which is quite rare.

As we ride I got a my first taste of how people interact.   All strangers sitting around listening to BBC news about Prince William’s new engagement, then chat and jokes start about Prince Wiliam’s new love, the driver asked if he’s getting married to a Jamaican woman, the ladies in the back start to laugh and said no English Prince could handle a Jamaican woman, over next week I realized how true that was.  One of the ladies took to me, and when I got out and said I’m going to Bus, but getting something to eat, she took me to a local favorite Tastee, while I got some sandwiches, then took me to the Bus terminal and convinced the Bus driver to take me all the way to hostel after dropping everyone off in Kingston.   Gave me her telephone number and insisted I call her if I need anything. Very sweet.  the funny thing is I ended up running into her a week later in the airport when she was searching bags for drugs and weapons, I got a hug and got to skip the queue. though at the American side I had no such love.  I got singled out for a very very through inspection.  Suppose it’s cause I wasn’t traveling with a blond mid western girlfriend, hadn’t shaved in a week and had a backpack on with too many stamps in my passport.

By Bus:

The ride to Kingston was an intro the the local bus system. Which has no schedule but leaves whenever a bus is loaded to %150 capacity. Picking a seat is a very strategic job. I recommend first row behind the driver, the seats in front are great but I feel those should be reserved for ladies.  The rest is a sardine can.   The ride is accompanied with ever present Reggae music which I enjoy infinitely more then Spanish music on Guatemalan chicken buses. Though about five minutes into the bus lady asks yells “driver man, “tun don d music”.  As she goes into a long sermon in heavy Patois asking Lord Father to keep us safe on journey.  That put a smile on my face, I finally feel like I am not in Kansas anymore!!  Though I was a bit concerned that this ride would require such a long prayer. . But was assured by the conviction of her voice, surely if God did exist he would not have missed her words. The ride itself was not bad,  about a four hour trip to get to Spanish town checkpoint.   Spanish town is the most historic town in Jamaica, but has earned the title “murder capital” of Jamaica which considering the competition is quite an achievement. We spent 45 minutes sitting after guys with guns pulled the driver out of the car, think that’s the deal but being my first time I was a little disturbed being surrounded by guys with assault rifles and street clothes, which i can only assume were the “good” guys.  If anyone associated with authority in Jamaica can be called good.

About half hour later we arrive in Kingston proper. To cross-roads. Which is a station and delineation mark between downtown, and New Kingston.   This line is a clearly marked in psyche of most of Kingston residents. The poor don’t go North to New Kingston, and New Kingstonians hardly acknowledge that there’s a world beyond cross-roads. From there negotiated with the Driver a ride to the hostel which was offered at below taxi rate, so I got a personal drive on the bus to the door.


In and out of Kingston

My journey start morning after I arrive in Kingston.  I met RH and took a bus downtown. She’s a couch host and pen-pal, and we’ve been talking for couple of weeks about Downtown and the Ghettos of Kingston.  That piqued my interest immensely, as did she.  I was fascinated to meet her. She is a French Journalist/Photographer of 27 of Algerian descent, that came to Kingston to cover life in the Kingston Ghettos.   Questions about why,  how, and especially how does she manage to stay safe in one of the most dangerous places in the world. I saw her photos in Washington Post covering the Dudus affairs, and was blown away.  Her commentary insightful. Her photos are striking. Respect!

She says don’t worry you’ll be safe with me. I think okay dying in a company of a pretty girl in a foreign place is not the worst way to go. My life is in  your hands!

So we met, and went downtown, to the infamous neighborhoods. Our path snaked through all the Trench Town, Tivoli Gardens.  From the outside they resemble every other poor neighborhood, in Central America or Caribbean, brick houses, wood houses, with steel roofs. Poorly maintained, unspectacular.  All these places have stories, stories of daily struggles, of sadness, children playing, people making sacrifices and getting on with life.   But these have few more stories then the usual. And these stories bore into you a little deeper.

So we walk and talk of the Violence, the rules.  The way that the gangs are structured. With the neighborhood being controlled by Dons who both serve as the arbitrator of justice, vengeance, peace keepers,  distributors of charity.   These men are affiliated with Political parties.  The parties that distribute money, for  which in return they provide them with votes and support of the neighborhood.   People are born into political party controlled neighborhoods. You do not follow your ideology as the parties no longer represent Socialist/Capitalist roots from which they sprung.  Now they’re simply spheres of influence. They do little to change the general direction of the country instead the winner is a beneficiary of kickbacks/power and money. The political war is fought as an actual war on the streets of West Kingston.

These wars are not something new. This violence is something that the current generation was born into. The cycle of death and suffering started decades ago, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight . The parties are entrenched. The political machine has no desire to dismantle the system, cause as horrible as the conditions are in the Ghettos their votes and allegiance still counts so the parties continue to play one neighborhood against the other.  As for the rest of the people..   Isn’t everyone enraged by what happens in the center of their capital? It seems not. Those that have are relatively safe in New Kingston and show very little empathy for those that suffer and die, even though their business contracts depend on successful election of men that manipulate and secretly support this civil war. No one is being brought to account for Government actions that resulted in 70 people dying in their capital for hunt of a man that was until weeks before protected by the Government in power. This is hippocracy in the worst way.

And as expected even here, American’s played a role. One that few know of. But a similar story that took place across Middle East, and Central America in the 70s. US finds greedy men that are willing to take up arms against Socialist movements and shower them with money/power/guns and immunity from persecution.  And as usual it blows up in their face.  Though more accurately it blows up in teh face of the manipulators more then the puppet-masters. When will US learn that state building is not a game of Risk. And the true consequences are usually far from the expected.  But that’s for another day.

Walking down Spanish town road we come across a cemetery.  Which I always love. This one was so overgrown one could hardly see the stones.   The one ironic thing is that even in death this stupid party/gang affiliation doesn’t end.  Each neighborhood, has a section of the Cemetery to bury theirs.

RH knows the streets and people intimately as she spends most of her days downtown. She has friends among these people. Knows everyone from locals, to hired killers. Has interviewed the Dons, and Political honcho behind the gangs. On two occasions we encountered couple of guys that she informed me were hit-men.  We met Rasta guys that served us delicious vegetarian meal all the while the joints didn’t leave their hand. We walked through the streets where Bob Marley lived, where he played.  The neighborhoods are filled with Murals of gangsters, heroes, stars.  Political Graffiti and tagging simply stating one party or the other owns this place.

In Tivoli Gardens we walked through streets where the government declared war on people.  Came in forced their ways into houses in their search for Dudas Coke and shot whole families of civilians under the guise of enforcement.  There were grenades and bombs that fell upon the houses.  Six months later people are rebuilding collapsed walls and covering inciting tags, and painting bullet ridden walls.  We meet people that have been through generations of this violence. and those that were born into it.  Cause whoever could have left this country has done so long ago. The ones that remain, will stay, rebuild and continue.

Though it wasn’t all just violence, it’s the one I ponder more as Death/Murder are irreversible injustice that should bring tears to anyone’s eyes.  But there’s much more to Kingston and Jamaica. Even if this country has lived with violence for a long time. People themselves are are quite resilient.  In the ghettos I find markets, and businesses, kids dressed in crisp uniforms, boys with ties, and girls in pink skirts walking to and from school on their own. playing, laughing.  people I met were happy to exchange words with me and RH.  They were open, shared stories of what has passed.  Human soul has an amazing ability to bounce back from hardships. Which is especially true for Jamaicans. They laugh, and argue with each other and strangers.   Conversations spark up everywhere, they have a great sense of humor.  They of course love to party, and dance the night away.  My great disappointment was missing Weddy Weddy.  Which are sound system wars. Where streets are permitted to have giant sounds systems setup on the streets with throngs of guys and girls dancing/grinding away to Dance-hall music.  Which has replaced Reggae as the popular music genre of young Jamaicans.

As we leave the Ghettos we walk through sort of time warp of Orange street, that shows that it used to be a place who’s glory has long passed. There’s many places like that all over Jamaica where one sees that there was something more one time, but has since fallen into dereliction.  Such as train lines that have stopped running decades ago.  Georgian mansions/houses on the coast with roof/floors collapsing.  it’s sometimes a more direct evidence of degeneration of a place then you will see in people. People forget, people are born and they never know what was before, or they become used to it. But buildings hold scars, and show their past with perfect memory.

We wind down the evening at Devon House in New Kingston. which is a mansion of the first Black Jamaican billionaire. There for first time in six hours we see some white people enjoying their 5 dollar ice creams.

We end the day by talking about her life, and Jamaica.

I ask her, “Don’t you miss Paris, don’t you miss museum and the culture? “No, Museums don’t make people happy”. ” And as a matter of face this place is a museum”. “this is the home of countless musicians” There is art everywhere. And from these streets that present obstacles and hardships that few people ever face comes amazing talent.  People asked did Bob Marley put Trench town on the map, or did Trench Town make Bob Marley. Think those that know Kingston would surely say the latter.  I go back and forth drawing parallels right or wrong between Bronx and Kingston. I didn’t grow up in the projects of the Bronx, but I’ve been there, I had friends from the projects, and from these projects sprung up a music movement that eclipses even Reggae. The Bronx in most turmoil filled years became a wellspring for new Musical genres like Hip Hop and Rap.

I spend the night in hostel drinking Rum and Coke again. Chatting with some people. One came from Haiti, the other from Monterrey Mexico. Both seen the results of lawless failed government, with  cities controlled by narco terrorists and gangs.  it’s an incredibly frustrating idea.  I’ve contemplated anarchy as an alternative to what I found to be a corrupt and rigged political system in US.  But finds appreciation for an even semi-functioning government once you spend few days in West Kingston.

The next day I walk around on my own a bit more, and head to Port Antonio and the Portland Parish. A place that is world away from Kingston.

Government Yards in Trenchtown

Trying to understand the dynamics of politically motivated violance, as well as turf wars mix is difficult to say the least.   There is oversimplifications and there’s hidden acts and alliances that don’t get covered in the sensationalized media that likes to count the heads and trophies.   Scale and  perspective are important to understand but as an outsider one rarely understands what is actually happening.

As often is the case opening up a local newspaper can be more revealing then turning on International broadcast.   Of course, the closer you get the clearer the picture.   Spending few days in Kingston after reading articles of violence there i am far from being able to draw a decent picture of what it is really like there now, and what these numbers really mean.   Violence, poverty, lawlessness, posse rule these are all realities of West Kingston. These are the headlines that grab our attention.  But sitting here now these are mere ideas clouded by preconceive notions.

I know a little something of under-estimating, and over estimating the day to day reality.  I meet many travelers coming to New York with their notions of perceived dangers of certain neighberhoods. These days they are exaggerations and completely unrealalistic ideas mostly drawn from popularized media portrayal in movies, tv, sensationalized media.  On the other hand New New Yorkers that lived here for five/ten years have no idea what New York was like back in the day.   Having moved to the Bronx in 1987 the city was a completely different world. The skeletons/shells of houses the overground trains would pass through South Bronx is a sight that one cannot imagine these days. As was the level of violance in the 80s.  Over the years I’ve lived in the Bronx, Spanish Harlem, Riverdale, Gramercy Park and Harlem proper.  Having spent my years in some of the roughest parts of NY like the worlds largest projects of Coop city, or Drug Capitol of NY Hunts Point, I know how bad it can be, but then I know that even there the reality is for those on the inside and the outside are two different things.  The contrasts between East Tremont/Hunt’s Point in 87 and Gramercy Park in 2005 are at least as great as those of New Kingston and Tivoli Gardens today. So I can appreciate the mistakes of drawing a picture with a single brush.

For little perspective.   I’ve not found per city stats for  Kingston Jamaica, but the country as a whole goes, and has had the third highest murder rate with 58 per 100,000 as of 2008.   While at the height of New York’s crime epidemic in 1990 it topped off at 129 per 100,000 in Hunt’s Point and 57 per 100,000 city wide.  It runs at 6.3 currently.  So New York was one twice as violent as Jamaica, and is now 10 time less.   And ultimately these are numbers, that give scale and perspective.  Each one of these represents an irreversible tragedy which shouldn’t be taken lightly. However the story can be written from many angles and I suppose I’m still wondering where the core of the story of violence truly resides.

Additional info:

New York Murder mystery

Crime stats in New York

It all starts somewhere

So today, I think of conversation that I had last night with MF.  Somewhere in the conversation about events from my high-school,  I realized that I couldn’t recall a moment that was of such importance but hazy non the less.   There’s much I can’t recall of those days.  Conversations I try to recall.   The strength and impact seems to have little effect on the accuracy of of recollection.  We’re bound to fill in the events that somehow make sense.  Even when I awake from dreams and try to tell someone what the dream was about you see only certain dimensions, and you fill in the rest.  The colors, the second parts of the conversations.  Perhaps that why I like to take pictures, and write journals when I’m on the road.  Cause I know that before long they will leave nothing but traces.   As we get older we start sinking into the past, at the half point mark in life we are immersed half in past and have only half in the future. then as we move towards the end we are drowning in our past. with only small parts of us remaining in the future.  It’s a luxury of the young to think that past doesn’t matter.  And that one can live only in the present. So perhaps this is why I’m writing, so that I can reflect and joke about my silly notions or naive impressions when I know better.   Don’t know how long I will write, how often, how private these words will remain, what purpose will the serve..

For how I simply look to this as an outlet on the days when I have the words and don’t want to lose them, when I have words and they have nowhere else to go.   If that’s all there is to this it will be enough.

In story I read recently “One man’s bible”   the main character who’s a dissident writer in China, who writes for no one, works that cannot be published or even seen.  His words are dangerous, and futile, but to go on he must write.    He’s a writer of course, and I am not.   I’ve written nothing except some broken letters meant to mend or break some hearts.  Though thoughts have to have a voice. Without a voice they’re are lost.

So returning to the words I started my first posting with is something I’d like to return to.  But not tonight.

Tonight it’s enough I think that I start somewhere.