How Do I Spell ‘Irony?’ A: J-A-M-A-I-C-A
Real True Confessions with Padre Pienbique
As I write this from my cozy perch on the balcony of my oceanfront suite in Jamaica, the Minnesota misery I was suffering just a few short days ago seems so distant. Fading and fleeting are the memories of crappy weather, the constant pressure of working the Big Wu office, not to mention the ever-looming specter of Americas most depressing day, commonly known as April 15th, tax day.
If youve ever been privy to life in Minnesota during the winter, youll know that the best strategy for survival is to take a marathon runners stride because the word of the day, (actually every day) is linger. The weather might act like it wants to break, but the medium grey of the sky lingers. Until the magic switch of daylight savings is thrown, the days simply linger until the sun falls out of the sky somewhere around 6:00. Also lingering are the habits of winter survival: Feeding the paunch above the beltline with the usual regiment of beer and starchy food, complemented by episodes of South Park and Family Guy that just dont seem as funny when life isnt quite lived, just lingered through.
Compared to the black-and-white existence of Minnesotas lingering winter (dead lawns, leafless trees, nondescript 30-40 degree temperatures), two hours of Jamaica hits you like a 50-millimeter mortar shell of color. Gone is drab semi-existence of eternal grayness. The unexpected assault on the senses of honest-to-goodness blue skies and an ocean so bright and alluring that the only adjective to describe it is electric. The first sight of it is so shocking to the mind and body alike that it feels like getting hit over the head with a baseball bat full of LSD. Kaleidoscopes have been convicted guilty of bland in the first degree next to any afternoon in Jamaica.
Jeff Spenser, an Ohio promoter, conscripted the Big Wu into Jamaican Jam Band service. Joining us were stalwarts eKoostic Hookah, Railroad Earth, Donna the Buffalo and Grateful Dead Hour host and all-around swell fella David Gans. What Mr. Spenser knew was that he hired the band Big Wu, for good or evil. What Im sure he was ignorant of was that he hired the members of said band to simply follow instructions and show up where they needed to be. Silly rabbit, smooth circumstances are for for um, other bands.
Posing a challenge to the international protocol utilized by immigration and customs officials the world over; keyboardist Al Oikari tried slipping through the cracks without that frivolous of all documents, a passport. Since nursery school, were all taught that each and every one of us is special, but immigration officials werent in the mood to make a special exception in Als case. Instead of joining his co-patriots on his scheduled flight from Miami to Montego Bay, Al was sent to the local chapter of the State Department, who evidently run a passport-printing machine for those who never guessed that they would need such a document to travel a foreign country.
So off we (most of us at least) went, Jamaica ahoy. After going through Jamaican customs, who dont seem to try nearly as hard as their American counterparts, we hopped a chartered bus for the drive down to Negril. By drive, I mean that in a relative way, as the bus uses the road to get from point A to point B. In Jamaican parlance, driving is a form of motorized aggression practiced in a state of dire survival.
The big highway running around the coast, known as Beach Road looks like any two lane chunk of pavement anywhere else in the world. However, the style of driving practiced on Beach Road would make any NASCAR racer blush. At one point I saw a taxi pulled over to pick up a passenger that was being passed by a bus, that was being passed by another taxi, lanes be damned. I would say that its only out of blind (literally) luck that there wasnt a four car head-on crash, but I witnessed this insanity time and time again. Furthermore, the only accidents I saw involved lily white tourists scratching their heads as they argued back and forth as to whos fault it was on the side of the road. Given that Jamaicans drive on the left side of the road ala England, I think its safe to say that the driving is best left to the natives, who are typically only half as fucked up as the common tourist.
Halfway to Negril, our driver, Reid, pulled over at a Jamaican Tourist Board approved rest stop. When I asked Reid if that meant his brother-in-law owned it, he laughed and told me that no- good guess! – but it had met the requirements for plumbing, electricity, and so on. Life with non-plumbing was reserved for the locals. Alas, my foray into Jamaica was greeted by that staple of the Third World, the smell of burning shit. (Reid explained to me that the combination of ash from campfires mixed with feces makes for a terrific fertilizer. If my sampling of the local produce were to be any judge, Id say Jamaicans have quite the brown thumb.)
On the other side of the prevailing Caribbean destitution is a decidedly affluent row of mansions that stood half-completed up and down Beach Road. Built- or at least halfway constructed- in a quasi-Spanish Adobe style that I assume would sport those cheesy orange tiles if it will ever have a roof, most of these were two-three story mysteries seemed to thumb their noses everything else around them.
Why, I asked Reid, arent any of the ocean front estates inhabited by the folks who started to build them? The answer Reid gave illustrated the irony that permeates Jamaica: If you leave your house half-built, the tax relief practically buys you another, slightly less splendiferous house anywhere else inland. For all the differences we have, everybody feels uniformly congruent in their utter hatred of paying taxes.
Since the theme is irony, Reid explained that the shacks slapped together in between the half-way completed houses were allowed to remain because the inhabitants captured the land. Architecturally speaking, these shanties were constructed in the style known as classic outhouse.
Like everything else in Jamaica, simple everyday events take on a life of their own, posing a challenge of wit, haggling skills and diplomacy. Checking into the resort transformed into a winner-take-all game of sorting out who quoted what price, why the quoted rate is wrong, what are you going to do about it, etc. After talking to five people at the desk for too long, I was finally allowed to check in to my room, although I was warned, that this needs to be discussed later, when so-and-so gets back. Officially, later is sometime between too late and never.
I was soon reminded that I was in Jamaica to play music, not debate the assistant to the assistant managers assistant regarding my rooms rate. Except for Al, who was spending his afternoon questioning the standard operating procedure for international travel back in Miami, the band jumped on another bus to play a gig. It was at the moment of arrival at the show that the explosive beauty of Jamaica hit me. Located on the beach, perched above some modest cliffs was the stage. Surrounded by sea air and sunshine, we played a casual set of tunes, no more bothered by the PA that half-worked half of the time than the absence of the keyboardist.
Coming to our aid was the lovely Dave Katz, keyboardist for eKoostic Hookah. When it became apparent that Al wouldnt be able to make it, someone with a cell phone started combing the island looking for an available musician to sit in with us. Dave took up the challenge, so long as he could eat his dinner first. No problem. Except that getting anything in Jamaica (except a cab) takes at least an hour. Somewhere along the show, Dave showed up and we grooved along.
As I had been too busy tending to my travels and work to sample the local floral and fauna, I asked a taxi driver if he knew where a guy such as myself might find some funny stuff. Although weed is technically illegal, you would never know it by walking around, sitting down in a restaurant, drinking at the bar or riding in a taxi. Especially riding in a taxi. Jamaica is, above all else, a service economy, and practically everybody is a one-man corporation, ready to provide you with personalized service- at a price.
Which isnt much, if youre shopping for a Marley Marlboro. (Yes, the big doobies are referred to as a Marley, or as one guy said, Joints are for New Yorkers, Mon!) An ounce goes for a whopping $50.00, any amount less is simply considered a sample, and that comes with the taxi drivers cell phone number and a stern warning not to ever buy anybody elses stuff, no matter what. Thats because everybody is the only guy that has the best weed anywhere in Jamaica. Dont believe me; just ask any cabbie, theyll tell you.
The next morning when I awoke from my golden slumbers, I was pleasantly surprised to find the hustle and bustle of tourists and their Jamaican counterparts hadnt gotten up to start the day. This rare moment of vacation without vacationers was broken by the familiar call of my tour manager Coby, who wanted to know if I wanted to get any breakfast. At this point I had no choice but to accept because at the volume he yelled, everybody in resort mustve been awoken as well, and Im sure they were hungry too. Jamaican service is slow enough without half of Negril butting in line to order French toast.
Because everything in Jamaica is conveniently located, as every fifty feet theres a bar/restaurant/taxi driver, we ventured across the street to a green shack that had little to say in the way of advertisement, save three words: Breakfast- Lunch- Dinner.
At first we werent sure if it was open, but the assuring sounds of- you guessed it! – reggae was pumping out of a boom box. After asking out loud if anybody was there, the owner/cook/waiter/bus boy came out from the back wearing a grin too wide for that early in the morning. Trumping that days edition of more ironic than thou, he introduced himself as Tony Montana.
After playing a few rounds of can I have this for breakfast?, he took our order for the first time. I say the first time because every ten minutes or so he would wander out from the kitchen to re-inquire on the specific nature of our breakfast. Did you say banana pancakes? No? Oh, da banana bread French toast man! Very good! But Im sorry I dont have any banana bread how about French toast with a banana on it? And so on, back and forth from the kitchen, to our table, to the cooler, and then back to the kitchen.
After a while (everything is a while in Jamaica) Tony came out, not with food, but the next best thing. Hey man, if you want the best weed, you get it from your good friend Tony Montana. I get you what you want, when you want. I have for you a joint of my best skunk. Take it, man. I go and make food now He disappeared again, leaving us to make do with the comically oversized splif he left us.
Until that moment, Jamaica was bordering on being a parody of itself, but this was too much. There we were, still waiting for something to eat, but left to pass the time, sucking on a giant joint, thoroughly enjoying the perfect weather, the fascinating foliage, the everything. And thats how it was for the rest of breakfast- perfect. I began to see how a whole nation might have a slice of paradise, yet remain in the Third World. Why get up and be all you can be, selling insurance in a cheap suit or filling out reports in triplicate for some moron of a district manager in suburban Detroit, when instead, you can casually make breakfast and sell weed to longhairs on R&R?
Somewhere during the wait for breakfast, Coby speculated that reason Jamaican service has garnered a reputation for moving at a snails pace was that after your order is taken, someone sneaks out the back door, hops on a motorcycle, drives to the store and purchases the ingredients necessary to make your omelet. Not two minutes after Tony served us our eggs (with a Lucky Strike sized doobie hanging out of his mouth) he ignored a young couple that had sat down (foolishly waiting for him to come over and take their order), jumped on a motorcycle, and drove off. Just as Coby had predicted, Tony returned with a basket full of bread, eggs, and the like.
Life on the beach is as good as advertised: Crystal clean waters that are so rich and radiantly blue and green that its as if God plugged in a neon sign. Aside from the usual parade of sunburned tourists sporting ill-fitting and inappropriately revealing bathing suits (why cant middle-aged German men keep it to themselves?), Jamaican homies waltz by, offering everything you could want, and a few things you didnt know you needed. Fresh fruit, CDs by local reggae bands, cigarettes, lobsters, parasailing or snorkeling tours, you name it, someone is willing to sell it to you.
Thus is the nature of supply and demand. The only time I saw that particular law broken was by wandering groups of, yes, reggae musicians that come up to your lounge chair on the beach and start playing Marley covers, whether you want them to or not.
This might have been acceptable, except that one cant go anywhere on the Jamaican coastline and NOT hear reggae. Beach to beach, in the taxi, at breakfast, even on flight before takeoff and after landing, Jamaican Air plays reggae over the PA. If theres oxygen, theres reggae. So how do you politely decline a personal performance of some Peter Tosh song being sung over the Jimmy Cliff thats being piped in on the resort stereo? Its almost as if reggae is the national currency and every day is free money day.
Part of me was sympathetic towards these wandering minstrels; its hard enough being a musician without having to cold-call on sun burnt tourists in banana slings. I met them half way: Since I couldnt stomach yet another poorly played version of Could You Be Love? (Ive been guilty of inflicting that song on people), I left them to serenade the others and asked for something I actually wanted- Drink Please!
If the economy is driven by the needs and desires of tourists, then the supply is met by anybody and everybody, as everybody is a one-man-one-stop shop. No matter what it is you want, ask anybody, its guaranteed theyll know somebody. Of course, this personalized service comes at a cost, but as every native inherently understands, if you dont get your hand in, you cant play.
I had an interest in renting a kayak, so I asked a fella named Ever Ready if he had one for me. After all, he had a boat for snorkeling and booze-cruises, several jet skis and a good reputation among the hotel staff. Ever Ready assured me that he could get me a kayak, Just follow me, Mon! We went in to the resort next door where he started pestering the staff if he could rent their kayak. After a few phone calls (to the owner, Im sure) a solid no came back. This is where I realized that if a Jamaican doesnt have what you want, hell be just as happy to rent you somebody elses stuff.
Given the turbulent history of the island and the persistent poverty that plagues it to this day, its almost impossible to not be at peace any time of the day. The very minute your guilt gets an itch to seek out the garden-variety injustices that permeate the population and environment, the serenity of your surroundings distracts you. This is the natural outcome of getting the bejesus stoned out of you on Tonys weed. Which also happens to be a fine way to get environmental- slightly askew on a hammock with some kind of rum concoction sloshing around my sun tanned belly, just a little too stoned to sit up and
And nothing. Getting up inevitably leads to spending more money than you need to intend to. Thats because Jamaicans can suck cash from your wallet faster than a Trench Town hooker- not that one should investigate that particular avenue of pumping money into the economy- Jamaica sits in the top-five list of places to get HIV.
Although I did my best to forget about the real world during my stay, bits of information kept sliding past my attention, not unlike a fly that wont leave you alone. Apparently, the first female Prime Minister of Jamaica was being inaugurated during my stay. This news seemed to be of more interest to some of the whitey tourists than anybody that lives in Jamaica. This isnt because Jamaicans arent conscious of their surroundings, but this supposed revolution in gender politics was ushered in as more of the same, or as a cabbie said Very good Mon! Corruption wears a skirt! Ha-Ha!
Nobody else looked too excited either. When I asked Ever Ready, he looked me, shrugged his shoulders, and muttered Hmmm. He was too busy making a living hustling cash-flush tourists to bother with the local morally bankrupt politico. Frankly, I cant say I blame him, as hes doing more to improve Jamaicas shaky economy than a hundred politicians and the endless legislation they foster on everyone else, or more appropriately for the locals, regulations that no one pays any attention to.
So it goes in this Libertarian paradise. Bars and stores dont feel compelled to bother with a liquor license. Instead, they just hang a sign over the bar that states: It is our intention to apply for a liquor license during the next meeting of the council at so-and-so. This profoundly simple solution to get around local statutes is too good to be true in the real world, let alone my house. Perhaps I could hang a sign over my pillow that reads It is my intention to pick up the beer cans, ciggy butts and random pornography strewn around the house after I choke down enough leftover booze to get off the couch, but I know it would never pass muster with the law of the land, commonly known in these parts as my wife.
So much for good intentions.
The week went on in the usual way, two hours for breakfast, one hour to sleep it off, two hours for lunch, three more to digest it with a dozen Red Stripes, three hours for dinner, followed by nine hours of sleepy time brought on by attempting (and failing) to smoke through the stash taking up half a grocery bag. Im sure Im missing a few hours in there, but Ive misplaced them and really dont feel like getting off my lounge chair to find them; theyll find their way back when they get hungry.
By the time we had packed up for the trip home, one of the other Jam In Jamaica travelers from Ohio devised a plan to rid himself of the last five Marleys that he had in his bag. Handing me a twenty-dollar bill, he told me to bribe the driver to convert the bus into a smoking section. When I asked the driver and slipped him the Jackson, he turned around, saw twenty-five hippies and no family tourists crammed onto a bus made to hold no more than twenty of anybody, and said For you, I turn off the air conditioner and open windows. Smoke away, Mon! Smoke away
Like most cuisines cooked in kitchens that make a Boy Scout campout look sophisticated, the basis for great food starts- and often ends- in being creative with fewer, but always fresh, quality ingredients. After eating in Jamaica a few days, my curiosity finally got a hold of me; I had to peek at the kitchen. (See photo enclosed) After pestering the cook, Steve, what made his rice so good, he shared his big secret. And now I pass it on to you.
Jamaican Rice (Or, How to look like you know what youre doing for less than three dollars)
Prepare 2 cups of any rice you choose in the normal fashion. (If youre not sure, read the side of the bag.)
Before you cover and cook, peel some garlic, grab a couple green onions, and some thyme, then smash them up a little bit. Dont pulverize and break them up, just rough them up a bit. Place them on top of the rice in the pot. Cover and cook.
When finished, remove the garlic, onions and thyme and discard.
Add a tablespoon of butter and mix it up. Whats left in your pot beats the hell out of whatever rice youve been eating for the last several years of your life, and it wont you much to impress your friends.
Serve with anything.
Drive Safe, Be nice to your Mother, and Drink your milk!