On Jamaican-ness and Bajan-ness
On Jamaican-ness and Bajan-ness
On a recent trip to Barbados I had the good sense to bring along my wife. (No... she's not in this picture.)
Although she was on the trip for quite an official reason (i.e. carrying my bags after recent surgery,) the unofficial reason was that we wanted to give her a nice 4 day break after dealing with a recent 12 day volley of continuous rain and no sun that had afflicted her new island home in Kingston. While I can’t say that she was looking forward to “carrying my bags” (oh, the things wives must put up with,) she was looking forward to her second trip to Barbados, in which she would have the opportunity to spend four days doing Absolutely Nothing.
I would be away all day in meetings of a high and important nature in which we discussed, among other matters, the idea of being nice to customers (but we used bigger words than that, to be sure.) She would be all alone, and have three whole days to herself, to sit and read and catch up on her free time, while comfortably ensconced in a four-star, Caribbean seaside resort.
Maybe it was the “ensconcing” that proved her undoing.
On the first evening, I returned the hotel to hear her report of the day – she spent two hours reading beside the pool, drinks in hand, bathing suit on, relaxing to the sound of the waves crashing in the background, when it started to creep in – a sheer and bottomless boredom.
To her credit, she fought it.
She went running, talked to the hotel staff, went for a walk into “town,” read 2 books, went swimming, talked to the staff, went to the store, talked to the staff, and for good measure, talked to the staff some more. To her credit, I did get a report from some of the hotel staff that she had indeed been talking with them, and they had truly enjoyed her company (as Trinis would say, “she has a set of talks” which in Jamaica would be translated to mean “she can chat!”)
Over the next few nights and on the flight back we talked a lot about the sort of bland, nothing happening-ness that is the Bajan experience, from a Jamaican and Trini perspective. The fact is, Barbados offers the visitor the most organized Caribbean experience that I have ever had in the region. After a trip to Barbados, a visitor might very well think that the Caribbean is a polite and conservative place, where the rule of law is only superseded by the even stricter “social laws.” It gives Barbados a very safe and quiet atmosphere, sedate and soothing.
Coming from Jamaica or Trinidad, however… the place is “bloody boring,” and most Bajans “nah say a damn t’ing” (trans. have nothing to say.)
Now, I don’t want to offend Bajans here, and what I am saying here must be understood in the context of the culture we were trying to give her a break from. As a relative of mine put it, Jamaica is one surprise after another, with something new and exciting happening every day.
When she says that something “new and exciting” happens every day, she did not mean that something GOOD happens necessarily – in fact our exorbitant murder rate is proof of that. That “new and exciting’ thing may be referring to:
- floods that rendered roads impassable in almost all parishes, and our attempts to drive through a river gully that had water high enough to make the car feel like a boat (scary)
- gruesome murders and rapes that are too gruesome to get into in detail lest you, Dear Reader, be offended. They have been enough to make my wife think twice before going out for a long run on a Sunday morning
- recent laws that make me unclear if I am officially Jamaican or not, in spite of my Jamaican passport and voter’s registration – which we discovered in the process of trying to get her official landed status.
- drivers that attempt to do amazing, reckless and daring things – such as riding a bicycle in the middle of a storm on Washington Boulevard, in dark of 5am, wearing only slippers, shorts and an open umbrella; a man and a woman on a motor-bike taking a right turn at Shortwood Road from Constant Spring Ring, with the woman dragging a lawnmower behind her; the driver that hit me off my bicycle and dislocated my shoulder coming down from Stony Hill.
- the many eccentric Mad-men on the roads (i.e. the indigent, homeless, insane,) including one fellow we saw yesterday in a Tastee patty shop in New Kingston who was talking incessantly to the air while telling jokes that he alone found funny. My wife has observed one of his insane colleagues walking down the street, and carefully replacing the rubbish he found (i.e. the good Jamaican citizen’s mail) with his own collection of rubbish gleaned from the nearest garbage pan. (This may have something to do with the Jamaican practice of sending anything that you deliberately want to lose via the Jamaican postal system.)
- a woman walking in her bare feet on her way to work down a flooded Mandela highway, past the carcass of a dead horse. I’m no epidemiologist, but that sure seemed like a “bad idea.”
These have all happened in the last month.
By contrast, my wife reported that while she was running in Barbados, she ran past a puddle and observed each and every car stopping to crawl through it, lest a pedestrian be splashed. All I could think about was the number of pedestrians we splashed between us, during the recent floods in Jamaica, and a guilty feeling came with it…
Incidentally, in this respect, Jamaica is no different from Trinidad, in my experience, in terms of it being exciting and new all the time. In the recent news they had their own share of kidnappings, bombs, beheadings, fetes, marches, speeches, World Cup qualifiers, and the most outrageous headlines I have ever read. From today’s newspaper:
- Garbage Truck Kills Scavenger at Forres Park (was that a good thing or a bad thing?)
- Underdogs WI look to bite Aussies (Ouch)
- Somos Viva Nueva-We are Viva Nueva (what?)
- Teen Killed in Hail of Gunfire
- Republic Staff Gives Advice (I would hope so…)
- Beware Racial Bombing Spree
- Ready to ‘Bite Political Dust’
- Badjohn Cop Transferred (A Trini word meaning SOB)
- Glencoe Man in Court (OK – hopefully they are have permission?)
These newspapers have a flair for taking mundane happenings and turning them into MAJOR HEADLINE EVENTS, with lots of bright colors and bold lettering.
Bajans are, by and large, are appalled at these uncivilized happenings. I can imagine Bajans visiting Jamaica and having heart-attacks at what to them would look like continued mayhem and chaos. The Jamaican response to chaos is to confront it head on and deal with it in as an aggressive manner as possible.
The Trini response is to laugh at it, write a biting Calypso, and break out the hard liquor.
In Barbados, however, it seems that the prevailing response is to dampen it.
Recently, I heard confirmation from a friend of mine who has lived in all three countries that the Bajan newspapers suppress bad news on a gentleman’s agreement intended to present a good face to tourists, and to preserve their number one industry. I believe it, although I have no proof.
When Jamaicans get into a fender bender, our first response is to start arguing our way out of it. The Bajan response is to sit in the car, and wait for the police. That is, to wait for the police in the middle of the road, regardless of the size of the damage. A Bajan will block traffic for miles doing this, their civic duty.
A Jamaican reading this would start imagining the new and exciting “claats” that would quickly learn from passing motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. A Trini would expect people to stop and remonstrate in a comical way, easing the tension of the moment.
The Bajan slows down and does not complain openly – as this is what everyone does, or is supposed to do. They will suppress the outburst before it happens.
These examples demonstrate what seems to me, an outsider, to be a visible suppression that I sense when working and dealing with Bajan women. I suppose it’s there with the men as well, but I don’t study men in the way that I study women as a gender (the fairer sex is just fairer to my eyes.)
Recently, when I was leaving Barbados last week for Jamaica, I ran into a friend who had been living in Barbados for some time. She is a fairly typical Trinidadian woman – outgoing, engaging, beautiful on the outside and inside, vivacious, smart and she enjoys people just because they are … people.
Meeting her in the airport had me reflect on the fact that I could count only a single Bajan woman among the hundreds I have met that I would say is “outgoing” or “expressive.”
My wife, (with her “set of talks”) was happy to get home… and yes, that meant happy to get home to the craziness that is life in Kingston. She was greeted by her first water lock-off in a while, coming right after the floods, that prevented her from bathing and washing four loads of laundry.
Ahh… home sweet home.