Trouble in Paradise

They deplaned by descending a portable staircase to the tarmac like they did in the old-time movies. A short walk brought them to an endless narrow hallway with louvered windows that eventually led to the terminal. Some airport workers lounged about standing in a relaxed, loose-limbed sort of way. Others walked past, a bouncing dancyness to their step. The humid heat was deadening. Suddenly the languid gait of the natives made sense. He also tried to slow down. It seemed to work. But retrieving his bag and going through customs was going to prove the same ball of confusion as usual.

Visit Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica, hit him full force as he stood leaning on a pole amidst a gaggle of people boarding cabs or looking for friends. A band of squatting men played what sounded like calypso, but was really mento, the traditional folk music of Jamaica, all but abandoned save for the tourist’s nostalgia. He stood listening to the music as the heat and tempo of the crowd enfolded him. He waited through two full tunes as red-capped bag handlers wove their carts deftly through the throng. He smelled the sweat of the hurrying people, mixed with the thick black exhaust of idling vehicles. He relaxed and acclimated himself to, or rather blended into, the bustling confusion. In time he disengaged himself from the pole and sought out a cab.

The road was straight, the sky blue, the air warm and salt-tanged from the indigo rippling sea that stretched far and wide on both sides of the narrow strip of sand that held the narrow road that bravely traversed the rocky harbor. The cabbie barreled silently down the two lane highway leading from the airport to Kingston, hunched weirdly on the right side of the car, driving on the left, not the right, side of the road. They zoomed past the rotting hulk of a long ago abandoned ancient vessel. A sea gull glided barely above the water tempting a landing.

Now they were on the mainland and they rumbled past a massive quarry, a huge hill of yellowish white rock was being systematically sheared away to make concrete to fuel the building boom in Kingston. The air was tinged with a thick whitish mist of dust that seemed to make the sun hotter. To their right the half shorn away hill shone yellowly, to their left, the ruffled blue sea sparkled with myriad bits of white.

On the radio he heard the pounding Reggae rhythms. A gravelly voice crooned, “Sit on me veranda. Smoke me marawannah. Me a no jester. Don’t want no polyesta. . .” as the lead electric guitar ping pinged the beat while the electric bass ba-ba-boomed the melody.

Now they were plunging into Kingston proper. Kingston in the popular mind meant pirates in the past and clean, white-stuccoed buildings in the present, and gaudily dressed police gesticulating to bustling traffic in the administrative capital of a coconut, palm-studded, sleepy paradise. However, many, in fact most, of the legendary coconut palms had soured. Plagued by the yellowing disease, their fronds gone, they looked like warped telephone poles. Now that the road had wended in off the coast, it became a dusty patchily paved track in spots. Bars dotted both sides of the street. Goats, pigs, even cows wandered about, heads bent in their eternal eating. Boisterous men gathered at the watering holes while outside children gamboled and women balanced loads on their heads with an erect gait, arms swinging in perfect synch with their legs in the maddening blaze of the white noon sun.

The busstops all had shelters built to protect against the rain, and the sun. On their outsides were plastered ads for Appleton Rum, Wincarnis Wine and Panther Condoms. And there were ads for Dragon Stout, fortified with iron, guaranteed to “Put it back!” On the radio the haunting Reggae thumping was interrupted for the following terse announcement.

“Under this State of Emergency, the government suspends some of the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the constitution. This is for a limited time and is to allow the forces of law and order to come to grips with any situation which threatens the life and safety of the nation and its citizens, most of whom are decent, law-abiding people. The freedom of a few is being restricted so that the freedom of the many may be protected.” Then back to the staccato beat and the words, “. . . Me fling off me shirt and me fling off me vest. . . She rub me ‘pon di chest and me fling off di rest. . .”

True, the words were funny, but the rhythm, like much Reggae, had an undercurrent of menace to it. No, this was not the Calypso, and this was certainly not the fabulous 1950s. Still, though, he took heart that the words were merry. Just then a jeep filled with soldiers bumped across the street in front of them as they waited for the light. Their black skin contrasted jarringly with their olive khakis. The severity of their helmets, the look in their eyes, the terrible stiffness of their semi-automatic rifles, all lent them a look of ultimate ferocity. . .

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