Coping with Karma
'Jamaica, no problem'
2 Dec, 1997
PICKED five weeks ago on a Papine bus to Half Way Tree, my leather wallet has come back to me without the money but with everything else intact. I thought it might be an omen.
To be fair, my karma has been pretty good, except for picked pockets and lost affection, made terminal by indiscretion the day I lost the wallet. My Guyanese-Jamaican guru, Dr P, has done his best to help. Trying to stick to my mantra the morning the wallet returned, I thought, 'It must be: faith, hope and charity, and the greatest of these is hope '.
It happened like this.
I called a woman I know at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, library for information on the Carter Center in Atlanta, which is bringing international observers for the December 18 Jamaica election. The woman in the library said someone had called her weeks ago to say they had found the wallet on the pavement in front of their office at Half Way Tree. The name and telephone number of the woman at the library were in the wallet. She thought I had gone back to Trinidad, said so to the caller, and told me apologetically she had misplaced the caller's name and telephone number.
I placed a classified ad in the Jamaica Observer, asking the finder to contact me. The first day the ad appeared the finder called to say I could come to pick it up.
THE driver's permit still in the wallet has revived the dream of renting a motorbike and riding about the island. I've been warned repeatedly against riding a motorbike here because of the risk of being knocked down on Kingston's streets. But I have no intention of riding in Kingston.
I want to burst through the hills and hurry along the old country lanes of St Ann, St Elizabeth, and Westmoreland. I've been warned of a particular danger while the election campaign is on. The bike, and anything I wear, should not be red or orange, the colours of the People's National Party (PNP), or Green, the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP's) colour. Political fanatics here take their colours that seriously. Perhaps it would help if I stuck on the handle bars the Jamaican flag I got for the Jamaica-Mexico World Cup qualifying football match.
The wildest Jamaican football fans have begun to believe the World Cup must be brought back to Jamaica from France, one way or another--before the final if necessary. Dumbfounded Fifa officials would send the Foreign Legion on undercover missions to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, across Columbus's Ocean Sea, JLP and PNP dons would give orders to down arms while their troops skanked before Jules Rimet's trophy, strapped to the roof of a smoking, rattling bus.
I have written to warn my cousin doing international law at Paris's Sorbonne (bright side of the family) that Jamaica will play Argentina in Paris on Sunday, June 21, in the first round of the World Cup finals. He might shoot down to Lyons the following weekend on the train de grande vitesse to see Jamaica confront the Japs.
I want to ask my editor for leave then and make the World Cup into a tour of France: Paris, Lyons, Toulouse, Nantes, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, Marseilles, Saint-Denis, Bordeaux, Nantes. Whether I get into any of the matches will be of secondary importance.
Argentine coach Daniel Passarella has said about the competition's Group H: 'Croatia could surprise anybody; Japan are a dynamic team we respect; we know nothing at all about Jamaica except that they have a Brazilian coach and play football well.'
Another warning against my renting a motorbike is that even in the peaceful Jamaican countryside I might by chance pass a band of outlaws eager for target practice and the bike. 'Death, where is thy sting?' All it would mean is having to be sent home to Lapeyrouse in a box.
Perhaps I'll rent a bike in France instead.
IF DIVINE intervention comes my way here, it may be because I went a few weeks ago to an inter-religious service at Unity of Jamaica's church near the National Stadium.
I went through loyalty to Dr P, the guru. A devout Hindu with a personal philosophy that embraces all religions, Dr P went to Unity to speak on 'male energy.' All the men in the congregation had to sit together, a square patch in a sea of women.
I met Dr P while doing an article on Jamaican Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. He has become the Fr Burchell of this visit to Jamaica. When I was here earlier this year, and thought I had fallen in love with Jamaica, I was adopted by Burchell and saw real Jamaican hospitality. This time I've been adopted by Dr P.
He saw my aura and I discovered he was deeply involved in the treatment of stress. He was soon prescribing adequate rest, less sugar, meditation and 16 glasses of water a day. Jokes are also important.
Sir Vidia said once he could crack four or five jokes a page. Dr P will give him a run for his money when his book comes out next year. The master of ceremonies at the Unity service was Mr Crawford--round, dark and very enthusiastic. He is the organist at the 7.15 a.m. service on Sundays at UWI's old chapel at Mona. During the Unity service he and a pianist accompanied each other while the congregation lustily sang some favourite hymns.
Mr Crawford and Dr P met 30 years ago as UWI students lodging at Irvine Hall. Crawford remembered that Patrick Manning, now Leader of the Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago, was there with them.
'Patrick used to eat a lot of bread,' Crawford recalled. 'When other people had two or three slices he had half a loaf.'
At the end of the service, after Dr P's medico-philosophical talk, the pianist did something by Tchaikovsky and received a tremendous ovation. Afterwards there were things to eat and drink. I was hugged and kissed by a couple of matronly ladies, which restored some of my self-esteem. Perhaps all was not lost after all: 'The greatest of these is hope.' I spoke to Crawford about Jamaican music, and later discovered Jamaican mento without at first knowing what it was. I heard it first passing through the lobby at Kingston's posh Wyndham hotel. Then at Caymanas Park, during the races, where there was a small mento band I was able to observe at close quarters.
The musicians were mainly oldish men. There were two guitars, a banjo, a scratcher and a box base on which its player sat, pulling on rectangular metal teeth that resonated in the box. I was swept away by the sweet music, only wishing another was there to hear it with me. I had been given two tickets for the Caymanas races and only used one. Mento is old-time Jamaican music, a mixture of Trinidad's Syl Dopson and parang. The band played a few old calypsoes. Their rendition of 'Sly Mongoose' set feet tapping. I would have been dancing madly if I had drunk a flask of rum or was in the privacy of my burrow.
When I noticed that one of the guitars played an offbeat rhythm, I knew immediately this music must be the precursor of reggae. I thought I must develop this theory, until I was told the connection is widely accepted in Jamaica. The woman at the UWI library has just given me an admission card and I will have to go there to find out all about mento.
My wallet I have shut away in a drawer and only use a money belt. I despair now at having to travel on buses and thankfully get drops two and from work.
Otherwise I'm usually at home writing this. With one addition, it would be paradise.
'Baby you'll find There's only one love like Yours and mine'. 25 Dec, 1997
A PHONECALL from Mrs Mayyou in Trinidad late on Christmas Eve reminded me that a lot of people went to church that night. I was going, wasn't I? Mrs Mayyou asked. I didn't know, I said.
Brought up a devout Roman Catholic, religious ceremonies now bore me quickly, especially the low-church, guitar-playing ones in vogue today. I'm a high-church man, so I like it better when there's a great organ accompanying famous hymns, with some Latin thrown in. The kind of thing you get at Evensong at St John's College, Cambridge, at the 11 a.m. high mass at London's Brompton Oratory, and sometimes at Trinity Cathedral in Port of Spain.
It's not just religious ceremonies, of course. I'm afflicted with hair-trigger boredom, which means I sometimes walk out of films and find excuses to leave and return several times during seminars.
Jamaica, believe it or not, is a very Christian country: Protestant, high-church Anglican, and innumerable Pentecostal sects--together with a handful of hard-working Jesuits. Sundays are very still, with church music and preachers on radio stations. You can imagine, then, what Christmas is like.
After Mrs Mayyou's phone call I remembered Mr Crawford, the organist, and rang him. He was about to leave for Mona where there would be carols in the chapel from 11.30 p.m. before a high-church Anglican midnight mass.
I rubbed sleep from my eyes, dressed up, and set off on the 20-minute walk to the Mona campus armed with my rod of protection. You are generally warned not to walk about at that time of night in or near Kingston. I do, of course--and, bound for a religious service, surely God would protect me.
With a record 1000-plus murders in Jamaica in 1997--though the December election was said to be the most peaceful in years--if KD Knight is reappointed Minister of National Security it will be clear that the newly elected People's National Party (PNP) government isn't serious about stopping crime.
I ENTERED the campus gate and went across the dark lawn towards the chapel, not allowing myself even a glance in the direction of Mary Seacole Hall. That's where women students stay. Women are the one area in which my Jamaican karma has been really quite bad.
It got worse as Christmas approached, which is why I am sitting alone at home writing this on Christmas day.
There's a game we play at Christmas time at the Trinidad Express called angels and earthlings. Secret gifts are left by angels for earthlings. Two years ago something extraordinary happened. It is the final unravelling of that miracle that has me in Jamaica today. If you ever have the opportunity to play angels and earthlings (called pixies here) at a newspaper in Jamaica--don't! The cultural gap is too great.
To begin with, in Jamaica an angel mustn't be of the same sex as an earthling. That's where the trouble started. My earthling was a pretty browning in her mid-twenties. I'd been in a jeep with her previously on nomination day. I liked her sense of humour.
My first secret gift was a chocolate. The second was a white stone. The third was a small bottle of kananga water--which I assumed was a cheap perfume. The fourth was an invitation to 'do something on the weekend'. Her boyfriend wouldn't like that, she said pointedly, so I dropped it. After the weekend I went up to her with a debonair air and said: 'I hope my faux pas last week was taken as a compliment'.
Later that day I was accosted by another person of my earthling's sex, with whom my earthling must have communicated at the earliest opportunity. How could I have done it? Ask her to spend the weekend with me, then ask for her boyfriend's phone number? Especially when she was not the reason I was in Jamaica?
My amazement deepened when I was told that the combination of a stone and kananga water was seen an obvious attempt to employ obeah for my nefarious purpose.
From what the informant said before cutting me dead--as my earthling did too, after I berated her--every woman in the newsroom, most of whom I hardly knew, now regarded me with uncomfortable suspicion. No amount of explaining helped. Everyone else was suddenly a victim. My own deepening melancholy counted for nothing. You see what I mean about bad karma.
ANYWAY, crossing the dark campus lawn on Christmas Eve, carefully avoiding Mary Seacole, I entered the chapel to find Mr Crawford just coming in himself.
I saluted the Trinidad and Tobago flag, hanging with other Caribbean Community (Caricom) flags from the chapel's gallery, and asked Mr Crawford if he would be playing the organ. It was giving trouble, he said, but he hoped something could be got out of it. Near the organ was a piano which would be used as well.
I left Mr Crawford fiddling with the organ and walked about the chapel. I had been told that when UWI started up in the 1940's the chapel had been brought stone by stone from somewhere else and rebuilt at Mona. There was a simple table altar with two candles on it. Behind the altar was a blue stained-glass window depicting the risen Christ. On the ceiling were carved roses and some coats of arms. I went up the stairs near the main door into the gallery. There was a man half-asleep on the floor there who grunted as I passed.
I went along the gallery to sit for a while just behind the flag. Homesickness does this kind of thing to you.
Descending from the gallery, I went out through the main door, lit a cigarette, and passed through a waist-high metal revolving gate which led into the small, dark chapel garden. I walked across the garden lawn to the single, low white tomb there. It was the final resting-place of Aston Preston, former UWI vice-chancellor. He died, I think, in 1988, and there is a new hall of residence at Mona named after him.
Here and there at the edge of the garden were the broken remains of walls hundreds of years old, disjecta membra of Mona sugar estate. There were shrubs growing on the lawn, ornate old plant pots, a wooden bench under a tree and a fishpond, its surface thick with water lilies and fish-weed. At the edge of the pond lay pieces of what looked like carved sea monsters.
I thought it must be meant to look like an English chapel garden, and was perhaps more carefully tended and more beautiful when the campus was first laid out.
I left the garden and went back into the chapel just as the carols were starting, accompanied by the piano. Two or three people standing near the piano led the singing and the small congregation joined in. Familiar old favourites: O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, Silent Night--and a couple in a toned-down Jamaican vernacular--De Virgin Mary, and Rock di Baby to Sleep.
SUDDENLY, as O Holy Night, I think it was, began, the organ boomed out. It sounded in good health to me.
This was what I had come for, and it was wonderful. It wasn't Mr Crawford playing, though. It was a man in a white soutane, a deacon perhaps.
As midnight approached the priest came in and lit the candles. Soon mass began, the carols replaced by hymns accompanied by the organ. The man at the keyboard sounded like a virtuoso as far as I was concerned.
I stayed until the priest, with a hairdo like Suren Capildeo's, read the gospel. Disappointingly, he read from some newfangled edition and not the King James version.
I'd been to the chapel before and knew this priest loved his work as much as attorney Capildeo loves his. He would preach and preach, savouring each parable. He would leave the pulpit and came down the aisle to the congregation. He would smile and gesticulate and look people in the eye as he expounded the holy word. After half an hour he would be just warming up.
I left quickly just before the gospel ended.
Retrieving my rod, I headed off home. On the way I passed two young men. They called out, asking for $50. I refused. They threw a stone. I threw one back and, fortunately, they took off.
Back at home, I got into bed and began reading Sir Philip Sherlock's new book, The Story of The Jamaican People. I had interviewed Sir Philip a few weeks before the book was published. He explained that the purpose of the book was to tell black Jamaicans about their history: in Africa before they came to Jamaica as slaves; and in Jamaica, where their efforts gave birth to democracy and many other wonderful things. The book suggested Jamaica was an African country, not a European one. It was the kind of book, in other words, that would drive Trinidadian parliamentarian Morgan Job to distraction. Its importance for me was stories it told about the birth of modern Jamaican politics: Norman Manley and the formation of the PNP; Sir Alexander Bustamante, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
I stopped reading for a moment to consider my karma, and to imagine what Mrs Mayyou and her family would be doing on Christmas morning.
Then I fell asleep.
AULD LANG SYNE
....Han hall de res dem deh.
6 Jan, 1998 (Twelfth Night)
MONA GREATHOUSE sits on an eminence at the foot of Long Mountain. It looks over the broad Mona Valley to the western end of the Grand Ridge. The ridge, crest of the Blue Mountains, runs from north-west to south-east into Jamaica's rural eastern parishes of Portland and St Thomas. Twelve miles north-east of Mona, as the johnny crow flies, Blue Mountain Peak rises to 7,402 feet.
The valley was full of lush cane once, irrigated by the Hope River. Today the paved river runs alongside the sprawling Mona Heights residential district, like Diamond Vale in Trinidad but more than twice the size.
The white, two-storey wooden greathouse rests on a walled, six-foot-high stone foundation. Four large, identical square windows with glass panes run along the front of the ground floor. The pattern is repeated symmetrically on the floor above. Two identical stone staircases, parallel with the front of the house, rise to a stone landing. The tall, double front doors are polished dark and there is a shiny brass knocker.
At night the house is lit up but there is no sound of life. Ceiling fans turn slowly on the upper floor. A peep through a shutter on the ground floor reveals a startling collection of antique furniture and modern art. Adjoining the house is a carefully tended walled garden. It is all that is left of spacious grounds, now filled with expensive modern homes, some semi-detached, some matching the architecture of the greathouse.
Behind the greathouse there is a long, low block of flats on carefully landscaped terraced land descending to a little valley. (One of these flats was my home while I was in Jamaica.) The whole complex is now called Greathouse Mews.
ONE NIGHT I remembered I wanted to talk to the people who lived in the greathouse to write something about it. I walked round to the front of the house, went up the stone staircase and rapped with the brass knocker. No response, and there was no bell. I rapped again and called out.
'Good evening, anyone at home? Good night! Ello, hanybody at 'ome. Whe a baddy a dey so in dey?'
Still no response.
I slipped my card beneath the door and left. The next day the owner rang. I explained what I wanted. He would have to talk to his wife, he said in a neutral English accent. He called again the following day, thanked me for my interest, and said an interview was quite impossible. I heard the stern voice of the wife in the background. I wondered if either of them was a descendant of the original owners.
'It may not really have been a greathouse,' the owner offered. 'It seems to have been the overseer's quarters. It was built in the 1700s on the remains of an old Spanish building.'
He didn't want to say any more; he and his wife wished to protect their privacy.
Were there ghosts? I asked. He didn't think so, but the children said they had seen their dead nanny.
I SPOKE TO the man in the greathouse on Old Year's day.
There had been a drought for weeks. Mona dam, half a mile from the greathouse, which supplies nearly a million people in greater Kingston, was just over half-full. Everyone was being asked to conserve water. Three days before Old Year's it suddenly began raining. It rained day and night with gusty winds. It became perceptibly cooler. In my flat, with squalls rattling the windows, I felt I was on a sailing ship at sea. The hook holding one of the windows broke and the window sprang open.
Was this the rainy season come at last? No, just a cold front passing over the island, said the television news.
No one seems to know any longer when Jamaica's wet season occurs. It used to be in April and October but has become irregular.
It has been unusually dry for years. Xamaica is Amerindian for land of wood and water. With continuing deforestation of the Blue Mountains, Jamaicans are learning that one doesn't come without the other. Jamaica is a much more settled island than Trinidad. Much of the forest was cut down centuries ago. Today the rolling pastureland that alternates with cultivation reminds you of Europe. For me, one of the joys of Jamaica is the fresh milk sold in plastic jugs and boxes in groceries.
As in Haiti, country people have for a long, long time cut down trees for charcoal. More trees are being cut now to increase the acreage under coffee. There has even been talk of building a desalination plant to turn the sea into fresh water.
Jamaica is the Caribbean's English-speaking Haiti. Think about it. The island was preserved from the Haitian disaster only by remaining a colony till 1962. Haitians have had nearly 200 years to wreck their country as they please.
Of course, the rain came down in abundance in October, just when the Red Stripe cricket series was being played. But that was to be expected. Cricket's alchemical influence on the clouds works as well in Jamaica as it does in Trinidad.
Immediately after the cricket the drought resumed. The water shortages all over Jamaica were an issue in the campaign for the December 18 election. The water goes off at about 10 p.m. at Greathouse Mews and comes back on again at about 5.30 a.m. On top of the drought, corroded old mains gush water all over the island. No one has asked why the mains weren't properly maintained.
I'm sorry, but if you can't even run a proper election, it's highly unlikely you'll be able to manage your water resources.
The Chinese have recently come to the rescue with a shipment of PVC pipes, bought with a US$5 million (TT$30 million) interest-free loan. I've heard that Trinidad is sending pipes too.
GOING to work in a taxi on Old Year's morning (I avoid buses like the plague now), the glassy-eyed Rastafarian driver and I were listening to Jamaica's most famous call-in radio programme, hosted by the highly opinionated and loquacious Wilmot 'Mutty' Perkins. The topic was politics, as it has been on call-in shows for the last three or four months.
'Dem commit dem finger and dem body a go pay for hit,' the driver said suddenly. He was talking about those who had voted PNP in the election. 'Dem give dem a dey crumbs and bribes a whe go bring damnation,' he declared.
He was no friend of PJ Patterson, sworn in as prime minister for the third time at King's House the day before. ANC chief, Thabo Mbeki, who 'happened to be on holiday in Jamaica', was guest of honour at the ceremony.
JLP leader Edward Seaga has said the Jamaican economy is in shambles and the PNP won't be able to do anything about it. He has even hinted the PNP won't last the full five years of it third term.
A local-government election, called parish elections in Jamaica--with parliamentary constituencies within each parish divided up into local government constituencies--is expected by April. Patterson has said these elections will take place just as soon as the confused voters list is cleaned up.
Suddenly, after the rushed general election, he has conceded how bad the list is--not to mention the confusion this caused for voters. Even as the PNP starts on its unprecedented third term, it's beginning to look like the December 18 election is far from over.
During Christmas week the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), headed by the much-maligned Danville Walker, announced that the JLP's Andrew Holness--who at 25 will be Jamaica's youngest member of parliament ever--had displaced the PNP winner Dr Warren Blake.
The first vote count on the night of the election gave Blake 8,436 votes, 122 more than Holness in the West Central St Andrew seat. Holness asked for a recount, and the result swung one way, then the other during two or three further recounts.
On the final, final recount, Holness was declared winner by a 'slim margin'. The final figure was not disclosed.
Holness's political leader, Seaga, now 57, first won a seat at the age of 29.
Blake hasn't taken the final, final result lying down. He has charged that during the recount two ballot boxes went missing and a third was found to contain 140 spoilt ballots which his PNP supporters claim were cast unspoilt for Blake.
Contacted on December 28, the EOJ said the returning officer for West Central St Andrew, Ancel Thomas, had been 'faced by a dilemma and had no recourse but to issue the necessary documentation at midday yesterday, declaring the seat for the JLP'.
Last week, more than 20 unsuccessful JLP candidates--of a total of 60--filed petitions under new electoral laws passed in the House just before the election to have elections in their constituencies declared null and void.
One of the JLP's deputy leaders, Ryan Peralto, was deeply involved in discussions with the EOJ before the election about serious discrepancies in voting procedures. Peralto has said once again that the inaccurate list of voters and the failure of the EOJ to issue identity cards to each voter, as required by law, meant many electors were unable to vote for the candidate of their choice. The December 18 election was so full of distortions it made a free and fare election impossible.
It is now up to a body called the Constituted Authority. Petitioners can take the matter to court as well.
WORKING here, and not on vacation, there's been little time to see much of Jamaica. I mean the rural interior not the beaches.
I've been trying to get to one spot in particular and am determined to get there before I leave in a couple days time.
I want to go up into the Blue Mountains to Newcastle, 5,000 feet above sea level. No one will take me so I'll have to use all my ingenuity to get there. A Papine pine taxi-driver told me he could take me there and back for J$1,600 (TT$270).
I've discovered I can go with a tour group and guide for J$1,400 (TT$230).
The road forks at Papine, near the University Hospital. To the right is August Town, where the most serious violence in the election campaign took place. To the left it goes uphill past Irish Town, then winds precariously between sheer drops, past Redlight to Strawberry Hill and the park at Newcastle near an army camp.
If you don't see me again, you'll know I've been overcome and taken up abode there: the man on the hill in Jamaica's Blue Mountains.
(Anthony Milne (firstname.lastname@example.org), was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)