Tourism, Ghetto Style
Travelling to other parts of the Caribbean is often a powerful experience for this Jamaican.
The "shock and awe" of the experience comes from seeing the ways in which we are similar, and yet very different. These insights tell me about myself as a Jamaican man, and a Caribbean citizen, in ways that just do not happen when I am at home moving around in my all-too familiar environment.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with staying home, but travelling to other countries is for me an opportunity to see me, and my country, and my people in new ways that are transformational... and these "self-discoveries" are the sweetest of all.
I had a huge discovery of this nature when I visited Soweto and Alexandaria townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively, and Vila Canoas and Rocinha, both favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
Basically, I paid around US$30 each, on four hour guided tour of these notorious ghettoes, and they were the absolute high point of each of the trips to these countries.
In each case the story was the same.
I boarded a bus to go on a guided tour of the absolute worst parts of these cities, places wracked by crime, violence and drugs. In each case, the tour-guides had to routinely arrange for safe passage with local drug-lords, to whom they paid "fees" to make sure that the tours would operate safely. Also, if there was some local disturbance, they would know to avoid certain areas.
After each tour I was a different person.
In Soweto, I visited a witch-doctor (a Sangoma) who showed us his license to practice from the state. I saw the inside of several hovels, with 10-20 people living together in impossible conditions. I remember a shopping cart with maybe 50 pigs heads, flies buzzing around and a stench that made my knees weak. It was dinner to a few hundred hungry mouths.
In Alexandria I saw an area of slums that could have easily covered every square inch of Kingston -- it extended as far as the eye could see. I toured the inside of some of the people's huts, and saw where they covered the walls with paper to insulate themselves from the cold. I saw a single pipe that served 75 people in the community, and little children begging for anything we would give them.
Both of these slums were separated by 15 miles of empty landscape from the major cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, looking more like Washington, DC than anything else. This legacy of apartheid left me angry and resentful, and I could being to imagine what it was like to travel from a Third World country to a First World country in the space of 20 minutes, without crossing a border.
In the favelas of Rio I found houses built together (up to four stories) like hutches in a beehive -- stacked on top of each other. People were literally living on top of each other, and yet they seemed quite happy (and also had the best views of Rio and its beaches.)
I came away schocked, as it was not the Rio I had seen from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
But the biggest insight was not what I saw, but what it taught me about myself and my people.
In each case, I understood from well-meaning middle-class people that these areas were dangerous, and not to be entered. I remember working and living in Caracas for a few weeks, and being warned to stay out of the subways because "they were so dangerous." I travelled them without incident for weeks. I lived for 2 weeks with a host family, and when I told my Venezuelan colleagues where I would be living they were appalled and begged me not to stay there. Once again, it was "too dangerous." And I never witnessed a single incident in 2 weeks.
While it is true that I have developed a certain ability to blend in when I want to, I remember laughing at their fears, comforting myself with the notion that "dis no worse dan yard!" (transl "this is no worse than Kingston!")
But it was a bitter-sweet laugh, because I would be in their shoes if the tables were turned. A few months ago a couple of female German students visiting as volunteers toured Jamaica via public minibus, as they could not afford any other means of transportation. I was amazed at their courage... and I caught myself doing exactly what my middle-class colleagues in these countries had done -- projecting my own ignorance and fears where they just did not belong.
But this is the power of travelling abroad, and seeing oneself in the mirror.
The idea I came away with was that it would be powerful if we in Jamaica could get over our embarrassment long enough to realize that we are the ones in the way of giving structured tours of places like Trench Town (which is more famous than Montego Bay) to thousands of visitors with an interest in learning more about the forces that shaped the great Bob Marley.
It is only because I have observed the reverence that people have for the reggae star first-hand, and heard people ask me what Trench Town is like innumerable times, that I know that this is an idea whose time has come.
The formula has already been set in other countries for how to do these tours successfully, and we are sitting on treasures like Trench Town, more concerned about hiding its ugliness from the world than we are about sharing its truth.
I saw a mention of the potential of Trench Town in particular in the talk about the upcoming cricket World Cup, when thousands of visitors are going to be clamouring for these tours right here in Kingston. Here "in town," we have never had to worry about any number of tourists coming through in large numbers,.
In a year, I predict that our taxi drivers are going to hear the request: "please take me to see Trench Town" more often than we are are prepared to mentally imagine.