21 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 3: Jamaica's Vital Signs

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Today's telling detail: The rebar

We're only about a mile from the port in Montego Bay when we spot the first unexpected sign, on a street corner. It's not the content so much as the placement and the precise form that are striking: atop the crossroads sign at intersection is fully-formed, 3D, larger-than-life KFC bucket. As we drive on, into the urban heart of the town, we notice that seemingly every street sign has advertising space at the top, as  though the roads themselves are brought to you by Juci Patties or Rainforest Seafood.

On the outskirt of town, we stop at the Great River Bridge, where the eponymous river drains into the Caribbean. The area here is incredibly lush, in that tropical way: palm trees, sugar cane, all manner of tall grasses and trees that I can't identify, the whole backdrop a showcase of every conceivable size and shape of leaf, every possible shade of green, with the occasional grace note of bright pink bougainvillea.

This is what we wanted to see. There are six of us along for the ride, and when we got into the van at the port, we asked our driver and guide, Mark, to take us out of the city. We want to see more, we said: the remote villages, the overgrown hills, the potholed, precarious road less traveled. Mark is an an affable native of Montego Bay, casual but professional in jeans and a untucked white button-front shirt. I guess him to be around forty.

The Great River Bridge, is our first stop. We park down the road a bit, where the highway shoulder is wider, and as we walk back toward the bridge, we pause to take in the rest of the scene. There's a field with two small soccer goals and a pair of goats roaming around. There's a three-sided and slightly ramshackle hut that is empty now but evidently transforms into a restaurant later in the day--a hand-painted sign reads "Las Vegas Jerk Shop." Out front, there's a grill fashioned from the metal inner part of a car wheel; a piece of rebar bent in half sits on top. Mark says this is called a coal pot. When we drive back this way a few hours later, we'll see a few people standing in the hut and smoke rising from the coal pot, a large hunk of meat on the rebar.

What most intrigues me, though, are the signs by the bridge. One identifies the body of water: GREAT RIVER. The sign doubles as an ad for Grace, a large food manufacturer in Jamaica. (See the photo at the top of this post.) Across the street is a sign reading, "Welcome to St. James," the Jamaican province we've just exited (the country has fourteen provinces in all); as we crossed the bridge, we had seen an identical sign saying, "Welcome to Hanover." In each sign, the Os are Pepsi logos, and a photo of a glistening, oh-so-refreshing Pepsi bottle stands to one side of the text.

Throughout the next several hours, as Mark drives us around the region, into the mountains, along remote roads, we'll see this over and over: municipal signs of all manner doubling as billboards.

Our group includes four Enrichment Voyage speakers: me; Susan, the artist-in-residence; Bob, a writer; and Dean, an author and photographer. Dean tells Mark that he'd like to visit a school, as part of his ongoing work to document people and cultures--when he's back in the States, he does presentations to schools, showing pictures and telling stories about what life is like for kids in other countries.

Mark laughs slightly the first time Dean says this, but then shrugs. Sure, let's find a school. By now, he's gotten used to some of our goofier tourist requests and our interrogation regarding Jamaican culture ("What kind of fish is that guy carrying?" "Are there many shipwrecks here?" "Are the police corrupt?")

The security guard at the gate of Merlene Ottey High School greets us with a quizzical look, but she lets us in anyway, pointing us to the school office, a one-story building painted in the brightest of yellows, with a grey corrugated-metal roof. Beyond the office are a few slightly larger but otherwise identical buildings, with students in brown uniforms walking around the the campus.

Dean offers his spiel to the principal, works his charm, and we're in. We wander the grounds for a few minutes, escorted by the principal, who answers our questions and introduces us to students and teachers. We visit a shop class and a drafting class, where Susan chats with some students about their drawings. The principal is quick to point out that there's also a computer lab and the standard curriculum of math, science, writing. Her pride in the school is evident.

As we leave, I turn back to look at the school and see that a slogan has been painted  on a low wall in the courtyard between the classroom buildings. It says: "Determination to succeed through commitment and service."

We drive on, higher into the hills, farther along the winding, narrow roads, the encroaching trees often forming a deep-green tunnel. Every now and then, a few houses appear--and they really do seem to appear spontaneously: it's all leaves and branches, leaves and branches, and then a hut suddenly bursts from the undergrowth. Sometimes, they're clustered together, forming a village; other times, there's just a lonely abode perched on the edge of the road, dangling above the steep drop-off below.

More than a few of these buildings are pieced together with scrap lumber of varying conditions, and many of these are tiny--not just one room, but so small that if any adults sleep there, it'd have to be standing up or lying across the diagonal. And several of these huts--structurally questionable and with no nearby neighbors--bear bright-red signs with white text: "Top up your Digicard Here." There does not appear to be any other commerce going on inside the buildings--no items for sell, no services offered. Just an all-but-empty hut with a red sign.

I'm confused and intrigued. In my mind, where I'm from, "Cell phone store" equals "Gleaming Verizon storefront at the mall"--or, at the very least, "Phone card store" equals "Random convenience store that also sells a gazillion other things."

After seeing a dozen of these signs, I ask Mark. Are they really selling phone cards here? In these overgrown, rolling hills, where the houses are, few, far-flung, and more than a bit ramshackle, do that many people have cell phones, let alone service?

Mark looks at me like I've asked the goofiest tourist question yet. "Yeah, mon," he says. "There's good coverage. People go to those stores to buy more minutes. We don't have contracts like in the United States--you just go to these places and get more time."

Near the end of our day of driving, Mark takes us into a posh subdivision overlooking Montego Bay. The housing here is considerably larger and typically surrounded by large fences.

Several of the houses appear unfinished. There's a complete ground floor--doors, windows, everything, and the places appear to be occupied. But it looks for all the world like the second story has been pulled off by some sort of impossibly precise tornado, which left behind only a forest of rebar protruding from the first floor.

We had seen this on the smaller houses in the countryside, too, over and over: one-story structures with rebar sticking out the top. But seeing them here, and feeling that same sense of confusion and wonder, is a good reminder that intriguing, unexpected, and culture-revealing things are to be found wherever you travel, not just the so-called "real" places out in the countryside, but even here in suburbia.

Of course, as Mark patiently explains, the second floor never existed. Yet. In someone's dreams, though, it does. The rebar is aspirational; it is the foundation of the future, the root of what's to come. Though it has no written words, this is the most important, telling sign we've seen all day. It says: When we have the money, we will keep building. And we know that day's coming, someday soon enough.

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