November 28, 2007

My Jamaica (Part One)

Knutsford Court HotelDespite the beauty and tranquility of the Knutsford Court Hotel, I was feeling trapped. I kept looking up at the hills, but the old "skin bag" fear returned. And reading Dennis O’Driscoll's poem over at John Baker's blog didn't help. I wanted to venture out into New Kingston, but the fear that I would become a meaningless statistic of Jamaican violence kept haunting me.

I had to admit that I was scared. Yet I kept reminding myself that this was the plan that I'd devised when I learned that I'd won four medals from the JCDC. I'd told myself that this trip to Jamaica would be much different than the five other trips that I'd taken when I taught poetry for the Calabash Literary Festival.

On those trips, I was pampered. Calabash paid my airfare and as soon as I landed at the airport I was paged, "Mr. Geoffrey Philp, please come to the office of the Jamaica Tourist Board." Next, I would be whisked through the airport and taken by a driver to the place where I would stay. In the mornings, the driver picked me up and took me to meet my eager students. After teaching all day, I was taken home to shower, change and escorted to the theatre or similar cultural event. This usually lasted for a week, and I stuck to the schedule. But over the years, I began to ask myself if I really knew Jamaica since leaving in 1979. I wanted to test my impressions on this trip. This time I wanted to do it on my own. So, other than one friend whom I called and then learned he was leaving for England, I didn't call anyone else.

The plan had worked, but then I began to get angry with myself. I was allowing the actions of a statistically insignificant fraction of Jamaica's population to govern my behavior--to blind me to the beauty of Jamaica and to transform every poor Jamaican into a potential gunman. It wasn't fair. Still, I had to acknowledge and the newspapers confirmed these facts: the elections had just finished, a hurricane had juts passed through, and Jamaica was increasingly becoming the land of "Passa Passa" funerals.

Yet the hills, which had been an integral part of my childhood landscape in Mona Heights, kept on calling.

I walked out to the gates of the hotel and talked with two stern looking security guards. We talked about the rains and how green the island looked. I asked them about taxi rates, and then, I made the decision.

I walked out the gates of the hotel down to Half-Way Tree Road where I caught a taxi that was dropping off another customer. Using the information that I gathered from the security guards, I negotiated a price and jumped in the front set of the taxi.

As we made our way past King's House, I introduced myself to the driver and he told me his name was Minto. We talked about the weather, the recent elections, and life in Jamaica.

By the time we got to Matilda's Corner, Minto said to me, "So, you've become an American?" I'd never been asked the question so directly and there was no equivocation. I had to say yes.

We talked a bit more about the rain and the roads that were filled with potholes. I would have taken pictures but I still haven't learned how to use the panorama setting on my camera.

After dodging an oncoming car and landing in one of the craters, Minto complained, "We're too talented to be this poor!" I agreed with him and gave him a few examples of several Jamaicans in South Florida who had distinguished themselves in many fields, and many examples of students such as Lance McGibbon at Miami Dade College (where I work), who has provided outstanding leadership in the Student Government Association by involving our students in working with Habitat for Humanity and other civic organizations.

"There's something about us," said Minto, "that makes us stand out." I agreed with him again. As I got out of the taxi at the gates of the University of the West Indies, we shared a joke and I laughed as I waved goodbye and then headed towards the English Department.

None of my friends were there. They'd either finished teaching their classes or had finished their office hours and had gone home. So much for surprises. I wandered around the campus and visited some of my old haunts. Then, I went to the bookstore where I bought a few books that some of my friends in Miami had "borrowed" and were now missing from my small library. At least the morning wasn't a total waste.

I made one last circle around the campus, walked out the gates, and caught a bus that dropped me off at the bottom park of Mona Heights.

I was ready for my next adventure.


For photos of the trip, please follow this link: My Jamaica.

Technorati Tags: ,


the prisoner's wife said...

Geoffery, now you have me waiting for the next installment. you did a wonder job at description, i had a hard time figuring out if this was fiction or non-fiction because it read so beautifully (and usually non-fiction is much more gruff, at least to me).

Geoffrey Philp said...

Prisoner's wife, the next installment will be on Monday.


Anonymous said...

I agree. We are too talented to be this poor! Glad you came back to visit. And you really have become American! the violence isn't that bad as people make it seem, especially in new Kingston.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, Leon. WE are.

Give thanks for the comment.


Mad Bull said...

Nice post, Geoffrey. I have gone on a walk about since I've been back too, once. I got picked up by opeople I knew on both legs of the journey though, so I don't think it counts...

I too miss the hills. (* sigh *)

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yeah, especially when you grow p in Mona and surrounded by hills, the flat of Florida can be depressing,