Friday, February 1, 2013

Downtown MoBay, and Rastaman Freddie

This is Rastaman (or as we later knew, Freddie), who knows just about everyone in Montego Bay. He guided us through downtown MoBay, showing us places that we probably wouldn’t have reached unaided.

To begin at the beginning: we decided to alternate days on the beach, with days seeing a little more of Jamaican life. On Friday, we headed to downtown MoBay. My intention was to just wander around, mingle with the townpeople, take photos, hang out. A couple of minutes after being dropped off in front of the civic center, it was obvious that this wouldn’t be easy.

“Hello hello! Do you remember me? We met at the airport! I was your baggage handler! It’s my day off today!!!”, said a very-friendly, red-shirted man, shaking my hand, as I’m thinking, strange, we wheeled our own suitcases, I don’t think I met you… He was very-very friendly and wanted to show us around town, but we managed to disengage and headed over towards The Cage, a tiny, cramped building, now a souvenir and phone card shop, previously the town lockup for vagabonds, thieves, and slaves who had exceeded their stay in town past 3 p.m., and to see the statues of Sam Sharpe and others.

“Did he tell you he knew you from the airport? He’s a liar! A liar!” Another man, being helpful, big grin, not offensive. And he started to tell us that the man in the red shirt uses that trick every day … but then Rastaman appeared, and started to talk about Sam Sharpe, the Christmas Rebellion (1831), and the history of Montego Bay.

Part of me wanted to resist, to explore on our own… yet Rastaman’s calmness, stature and presence inspired trust.

He said he would show us the parish church, and led us to St James’, past a school with murals of famous Jamaican sportsmen and women (and Bob Marley), and Jamaica's National Heroes: Marcus Garvey, George William Gordon, Paul Bogle, Nanny, Sir Alexander Bustamante, Sam Sharpe, and Norman Washington Manley.

Then we cut through the church hall, and up the main street. Full of people and traffic and noise and music: loud sound system blasting from outside a store. Colour and sound and people and thank goodness I didn’t hire a car.

“Do you want to see the vegetable and fruit market?”, Rastaman asked. Yes please, we said.

We walked down Barnett Street, then Fustic Avenue, to the market.

On the way, Freddie was meeting friends, greeting with fist bumps and a big grin. He taught us Love, Peace, Unity: One Blood! (fist, fist, fist, shoulder bump!) We met his daughter, and a grandson: very cute and rather shy. We passed the Rastafarian Ital Millenium Victory restaurant and juice bar on Barnett Street  (“we will eat lunch there”), and headed to the market, past the people who lined the street, sitting on the kerb, goods spread on blankets or bags or in baskets or stacked in the back of pickup trucks, all the way along the street from the town center. Everyone trying to make a little money, to feed the family, to buy a school uniform or textbooks.

The market was full of exotic (to us) fruits and vegetables and herbs. Cinnamon leaves! Giant yams! Ackee fruit! Sugar cane! Roselle! Scotch Bonnet peppers! And, of course, many more of Rastaman Freddie’s friends, who all said hello.

A little girl ran after us, calling to Jade and I, “Hello Chinese! Hello Chinese!”. Everyone within earshot cracked up, laughing. (Some of the “wholesale” supermarkets are run by people from China, and they may have been this little girl’s only reference when she saw our pale skin.) I realized only then how much we must have stood out… and how few other visitors to Jamaica care to visit places other than private beaches, resorts and tourist attractions. It’s a darn shame. 

People everywhere. Boys pushing a big cart. A man, pushing another cart, this one with a sound system, playing loud music. Let's dance, in the street.

After the market, we headed back to the Rastafarian restaurant. Wonderful, wonderful fresh juice: carrot and ginger, beet and carrot and ginger. Curried tofu, yams, breadfruit, vegetables. Truly delicious. (I am finding out more about Ital cuisine; it suits my way of thinking.)

("Be kind to animals", it says on the wall, "Don't eat them")

Later, Freddie guided us back through the town, making sure we’d know where we were when he left us. He was a true gentleman, and I am so glad that we met him, and spent time with him. I value the insight that he gave us into the lives of the people of Montego Bay. I am sure that there is a frustration, a sadness, that more visitors to Jamaica do not take the time to see, and do not spend their vacation cash in a way that would help the people, rather than the multinational resorts.

Personally, I think it’s sad that so many travel guides and tour organizations give dire warnings about safety, so much so that you rarely see tourists outside of the resorts or the “tourist attractions”. Jamaica is very obviously a beautiful country, with happy, generous and caring people. The people in the market were friendly, but shy of the camera. I would love to go back one day, and learn more of their stories. Maybe I can ask Freddie to help. I hope so, one day.

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