July 1, 2005
Rastas, Roosters, and Reggae - Ya, Mon!
By Douglas Bernon
Every town has rhythms, scents, pace, and flavors that mark it for its own. In Port Antonio the sounds were roosters and reggae, the scent was marijuana, the pace was slow and the taste was jerk seasoning. Ubiquitous in all Jamaica, jerk was new to me. A combination of salt, local peppers and curries, it's rubbed on fish, meat, and poultry, which are then barbequed. Throughout the city there are stalls with 55-gallon steel drums that have been converted to grills, some of them lavishly decorated and generally tended by glassy-eyed men smoking a huge spleef of ganga, drinking Red Stripe beer or Wrey and Nephew's White Overproof Rum, a fiery toxin that even after the second glass remains undrinkable. A healthy portion of jerk pork - enough for two lunches - runs 150 Jamaican dollars (referred to as Js) or just over $2. I sampled the fare at more than a half-dozen stalls, but continually returned for the beef and chicken at Honest John's because his jerk had an extra dose of ground Scotch Bonnet Peppers. There's rarely a dish that's too hot for me, but I had to eat his with some milk and bread just to keep my lips from peeling off my face.
When Bernadette flew back to the States for two weeks for some routine medical appointments and to present slideshows at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, Honest John was a regular lunch stop for me, but it was crucial to arrive before noon, because after the midday sun, he'd be too far gone, ignoring the fire and consistently burning his meat. One afternoon, on my way back from the open-air market where we bought the freshest fruit and veggies every day, John and one of his enemies were circling each other fiercely, knives drawn and ready to slice a different flesh. A crowd that included local police watched with detached amusement; finally two of the buxom ladies from the neighboring stalls waded fearlessly into the middle, gave a good tongue lashing to each of the men, and took away their knives.
Port Antonio has numerous grocery stores with all the commercially packaged goods you might need, but the center of the town's food supply, and its essential hub, is the warren of open-air stalls that comprise the market place. Most of the stalls sell the same food: coconuts, peppers, onions, garlic, bananas, citrus, jerk seasoning, yams, mangos, pineapples, greens and whatever else is plentiful. Who you buy from has as much to do with who tickles your fancy, or to whom you're related, as it does with price or quality, because there's not much difference. There aren't a lot of gringos shopping here, so us white folks are a novel entertainment as we fumble both with the money and with making sense of what's fresh and what's not.
For me, the daily trip to the market was a highlight of the day. I'd buy a small pineapple that would be fresh in 24 hours, an onion or two to be part of my dinner, a couple of oranges, some limes for fresh drinks, and whatever else would be part of dinner. I'd make these purchases at four or five different stalls so I'd have more people to talk to and more stories to hear. These transactions were not merely gathering food; they were the essence of my time off the boat, and I made a number of friends that way. It wasn't killing time as much as it was savoring it. I know most of the ladies were hustling me in one way or another. Some would try to get from me 70 Js for a mango instead of 60 Js, and I'd call them on it. They'd laugh, smile, fess up, absolutely refuse to change the price and suddenly, with a wink, toss a coconut or an orange into my bag.
One Friday afternoon I saw at a stall I'd not been to before a large cardboard box full of intensely red leaves that looked a bit like rose hips. Miss Barbara took me under her wing told me they were sorrel leaves, and they're used to make a local drink.
"You wan dese, chile, you better buy dem today, cause I only be here on Friday and Sat-a-day. Dey be gone before I go home tonight."
Intrigued, I asked her if it was easy to make the drink.
"Ya, mon. It's no problem a'tall. You find yoursef a good Jamaican woman to make it sweet for you," and she roared with laughter. "Dat's d'best way to make it!" When she noticed my wedding ring, she added, "Well, maybe it be best if you have d'wife make it for you. I'll tell you how." With that, Miss Barbara gathered up two pounds of the sorrel leaves, about 10 inches of fresh ginger, and a bag of allspice kernels. Then she gave her instructions.
"First, you wash d'leaves. Den you peel d'ginger, and grate it. Boil water, and tro in d'ginger."
"How much water Miss Barbara?"
"Oh honey, I doan know. A lot, till it feels like you got enough. A couple of gallons would be okay. You keep it boilin' for two minutes and then turn off de fire. Trow in de spice and sorrel leaves, put de lid back on top, and keep it covered till the sun comes up. Strain it and you done wid it. My husbin, he likes to add some red wine and white rum, but to tell you d'truth, he likes to add dem to every ting. You do what you wan to do."
The drink is delicious. It tastes like a gingered version of red zinger tea but with lots more bite and lots more flavor. We added red wine to one glass and also some fresh fruit, and it was a little like sangria. Not bad. We added some good local Appleton rum and that worked fine, but then when doesn't it? Mostly though we just added some lime juice and had the most refreshing hot-weather drink either of us have ever known. For the next three Fridays I went to visit Miss Barbara and stocked up on sorrel. We made great batches and got everyone in the anchorage hooked on the stuff.
Several afternoons the anchorage was serenaded by a group of school children whose teacher had brought them down to the shaded park by the shore where they could practice their singing. There were nine boats in the anchorage and I looked around and saw that all work had stopped on all nine. Everyone sat on deck with their binoculars, watching and listening to the kids. It was a welcome respite, too, from the music we were used to hearing all night every night. Jamaica is Rastafarian. Reggae is Rastafarian. Ganga seems to be the lifeblood of Rastafaria, and the combination meant a constant barrage of music from the many clubs that almost never close. Only on Sunday mornings, between 7:00 and noon, were those sounds replaced by church music you'd hear from all over town.
9) "Ganga Sign at Rooftop Club" (BoatUS-44) (please put this across the whole page)
I'd never listened to much reggae other than an occasional Bob Marley song, but as I focused on some of the older work of Jacob Miller and Dennis Brown, I came to appreciate more nuance and like it a lot. This is a music of political history, of deprivation and aspiration, of pride and desire, of manners and respect, of longing, love and spirituality. Throughout town are little shops that copy CDs and sell them for a pittance. Walk into any of these places, the music is loud, the smoke is thick and the conversation is about music and Rastafaria. I'd go often and we have some nice tunes on board now. Generally in each shop there's at least one picture of Haile Selassie, the late Emperor of Ethiopia, and one of the larger names in Rastafarian history and culture.
But not all is peace and love in Jamaica. On the day we arrived in Port Antonio we met Stefan and Tina, a young German couple on Avanti, a Bristol 28 they'd sailed down from New England this year. They horrified us with a recounting of their previous 36 hours. Tina's elderly parents were visiting them from Germany. The foursome sailed to nearby San San Bay, eight miles away and famous for its stunning beaches and blue hole. During the night armed bandits came aboard, tied them up, stole their money, electronics, and various odds and ends. Tina has since flown home to Germany and Stefan put up a For Sale sign on Avanti. Through the internet he contacted friends in Europe who helped him sell it to a friend of a friend of a friend who flew in from Belgium to see the boat and put it up on the hard until he could return this fall to start sailing her. Their experience in Jamaica ended their cruising.
While I'm glad we came to Port Antonio, and while it proved to be a terrific place to do boat projects and just hang out while Bernadette went back to the States for a couple of weeks, and while I loved the food and mountains and music, and especially lots of local people I hung out with, this is not a town in which I ever really felt at ease. There were too many young black guys laughing and yelling out "Hey whitey, come on over here whitey," too many young women who would glare right through me when I passed them on the street and said hello. I didn't experience this with older men and women, but among the younger ones, it felt like more than a resentful jab from economic have-nots toward the far more fortunate haves. There was a racial fury that seemed to permeate the air. I never heard of anyone being accosted or molested on the street, and I never felt genuinely in danger, but I never felt I could let my guard down either. Port Antonio is not a place to swing a camera around your neck and go willy-nilly snapping shots of people or things.
Not since the sixties have I seen so many totally stoned people. Jamaica is the ganja motherland, and an awful lot of folks here - men especially it seems - have been sucking at that breast for a long long time. In the markets, on the curbs, in the streets, there are a lot of guys with the thousand-mile stare. The distinct smell of marijuana is everywhere, and while it is officially illegal, that's a technical detail of minor proportions. In the open air markets, where we went everyday, where a series of robust and loving women call you "honey" and beckon you over to buy their goods, the Rasta men, equally as openly hawk their weed at bargain-basement prices. Had I landed here 40 years ago, I'd surely never have escaped.
Marijuana here, like everywhere, plays a number of roles in peoples' lives: for lots of the Rastafarian men I talked with, they speak about their smoke with the same reverence Carlos Castaneda showed for cactus and mushrooms. One afternoon, in the center of the market, next to the stalls full of wood carvings, I saw one man playfully start to grab the joint his buddy was smoking. Ducking quickly away to avoid having it snatched right out of his mouth, he happily handed his buddy a separate smoke, but reprimanded him too. "No, Mon. Doan you be messing with my meditation. Dere, take dis one. Have your own mediation. Ya, mon. This meditation's mine."
As we get ready to leave Port Antonio for the four- or five-day passage to the San Blas, we'll stock up on sweet buns from the Coronation Bakery, jerk seasoning and fiery hot sauce, on sorrel leaves and all spice and ginger, on mangoes and melons and bananas and pineapples that won't ripen for several days to a week. I'll make my rounds in the market and say goodbye to Miss Barbara and Miss Doris; to the Church Lady who sells me limes and reads me scripture; to Big Bob Rasta Man who makes my CDs; to Mrs. Chin, the propane lady from Mauritius who speaks six languages fluently and tolerates my efforts to talk in French with her; to the lady in the Restaurant With No Name who makes wonderful curried goat and chicken lunches for $2, and fresh-fruit smoothies. We'll leave Port Antonio wistfully. Most days it's been a sweet interlude. Other days it's grabbed us by the collar and made us think about race, religious oppression, and rage. For all of that I say thank you.