Thursday, February 25, 2010
Jamaica, part one
“Come Back to Jamaica” the ads implored. I couldn’t come back to a place I had never been before, but I was intrigued all the same. I didn’t know about recent Jamaica’s political upheaval and why they were so eager to ensure tourists that it was safe to return. In fact, I wasn’t thinking of Jamaica at all when I was planning my summer vacation.
My original plan was to go Chicago with a co-worker. Let’s call him Dickhead. Dickhead was from Chicago and for months he’d told me about what a great city it was and how he wanted to show me the sights. We were drinking buddies, and finally one day after listening to another story about the windy city, I asked Dickhead if he was serious, did he really want to show me Chicago? Hell yeah, he said, let’s do this thing. We’d stay at his mother’s place and save lots of money. Dickhead even picked out the date that worked best for him.
I put in my vacation request for the dates Dickhead chose. About two weeks before we were to go, I asked Dickhead if he’d thought about plane reservations or did he want me to book a flight? Dickhead looked at me strange and said he had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained about the trip we’d agreed to go on together, Dickhead said that he didn’t really mean that we’d actually go to Chicago, just that he’d like to if he could. He didn’t have the money or the time to go and besides, he had as many bad memories of Chicago as good ones and didn’t really want to go home anytime soon.
So, there I was with my vacation time speeding toward me and no place to go. I could have rescheduled, but that would have been a huge hassle. I was working the Sunday morning shift at the TV station and bitching to another co-worker, who I’ll call Mike, about how Dickhead screwed up my vacation. Mike pointed out that I was free to go anywhere in the world. I didn’t need to go with anybody. Mike had brought the Sunday paper. We pulled out the travel section and looked it over.
I decided on Jamaica for a number of reasons: sun, beaches, reggae, rum, and pot. And it was cheap. I called a travel agency on Monday and scheduled a four day trip that included hotel, ground transportation, and airfare. I didn’t have a passport, but the travel agent assured me that all I needed was my driver’s license.
I flew Air Jamaica. The plane landed next to into the smallest airport I’d ever seen. I felt culture shock at being someplace that wasn’t as modern as the United States. The plane let my fellow travelers and me off on the tarmac and we walked into the airport. It was mid-June, hot and muggy.
My luggage was transferred from the plane to the front of the airport where the vans were waiting to take tourists to their various hotels. Baggage handlers made sure everybody’s luggage made it to the right van.
One handler, a tall sweaty black man with a big smile, held his hand out to me and said, “Welcome to Jamaica, mon.” I grabbed his hand to shake it and he passed the bag of marijuana he had hidden in his palm into my palm.
“Just give me a twenty, mon.” he said. “Pretend it’s a tip.”
I was too shocked to refuse. I took a twenty out of my wallet and gave it to him. Later, I found out about the money exchange and figured out that he had grossly overcharged me.
I put the bag of pot in my pants pocket and thought, welcome to Jamaica where they give you drugs the minute you step off the plane.
My hotel room was in Montego Bay. The room was like a dorm room with cheap furniture. But it was clean and I was outside of the United States for only the second time in my life. The first time was when I rode with friends from Detroit to Windsor, Canada, and it almost doesn’t count because we only stayed for about an hour before going back to Detroit.
The culture shock that I received at the airport was nothing to what I felt as I walked the streets of Montego Bay. I did no homework on Jamaica before I left the comfort of home and entered this Third World Country. I was the typical naïve tourist.
Panhandlers swarmed around me like hungry mosquitoes. I noticed that larger groups of people weren’t harassed as much as single persons like myself. I had a cheap pocket instamatic camera that I bought for the trip. I didn’t discover until I had the photos developed that you had to be really careful how you held the camera when you snapped pictures. My fingers got it the way so that most of my photos had what looked like mutant worms looming in from the side and obscuring the subject matter.
On my first day, a short thin man calling himself Slick latched onto to me. With his dark sunglasses and black driver’s cap, Slick projected a sleazy gangster vibe. He kept offering to carry my camera for me. The instamatic was cheap so it wouldn’t have been a big deal if Slick stole the camera, but then I would have been without a camera, so I declined his offer.
I stayed with Slick that first day because I was afraid that he would turn on me if I tried to chase him away. He led me to a couple of bars where I paid for our beers. The sun went down and Slick showed no signs of loosening his grip on me.
When Slick asked me if I wanted to go someplace to eat, I told him I wasn’t hungry. For some reason, I didn’t mind buying him beer, but I didn’t want to buy him food. This was the opposite of how I would normally treat a panhandler, insisting that they buy food with any money I gave them instead of wasting it on alcohol, but I never had to sit down for a meal with a panhandler. That was too intimate, while drinking together seemed less personal. I ended up not eating much the entire time I was there.
After the bars, Slick took me to the Jamaican version of a strip club. In a large room filled with wooden tables and chairs, we drank Red Stripe Beer and watched a half naked fat woman dance to Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” I’ve never been able to listen to that song since without conjuring up the image of that fat woman gyrating with a wicked grin on her fleshy face.
I was content to end the evening there and escape back to my hotel room, but Slick was disappointed in this strip club and wanted to take me to one that he insisted was much better. We wandered through down dimly lit streets. I had no idea where I was or how to get back to my hotel.
I shouldn’t have been there. I was taking a foolish risk, but I kept thinking about how much those TV ads begged people to return to Jamaica. Tourism was the only thing that keeping Jamaica afloat. Jamaicans wanted to coerce as much as they could from tourists, but they didn’t want to hurt them. That would kill tourism and everybody would suffer. That was my theory and probably a stupid one, but that’s how I kept from freaking out.
Slick and I came to building with no sign and boarded up windows. Inside, rows of metal folding chairs faced a simple stage. Shine led me to the front row and ordered us a couple of Red Stripes. As American pop music played (I was beginning to wonder why I rarely heard Reggae) Jamaican girls came out one or two at a time and danced. The girls were young, I would guess somewhere between fourteen and sixteen years old. Their small breasts were not fully developed. They wore bikini tops and grass skirts, which they quickly took off. They spread their legs so wide and presented their vaginas so prominently, I felt I should have given them gynecology exams.
Slick nudged me and said I should photos of the girls. I argued that taking photos of underage girls with their legs spread open in a strip club was not a good idea. Slick insisted, so I did. Immediately, the manager ran over and yelled at me. Slick got up and talked to the manager for a moment, and then asked me to give the owner some money. I had exchanged some U.S. dollars into Jamaican money and passed some of the bills to the owner. He pocketed the money, smiled and directed me to take more photos. The girls smiled and exposed themselves for my camera and I snapped photos until I ran out of film.
“Which girl would you like to take back to your room with you?” the owner asked.
“That’s okay,” I said. “None of them.”
“You don’t like my girls?” the owner said indignantly.
“No, it’s not that,” I said backpedaling. “I just got in today and I’m tired. Maybe tomorrow night.”
I used the tired from the trip excuse to get Slick to lead me back to my hotel. He offered to carry my camera for me as we walked, but I said I could hold it just fine. When we reached the hotel, Slick asked what time he should meet me the next day. I lied and told him late in the afternoon. I figured I would leave earlier and just hope he didn’t camp out waiting for me.
Once inside my room, I locked the door, took a long shower, smoked a joint, and then went to bed. What an incredibly long day it had been, full of strange adventure. And this was just the first day.
To be continued.