Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Entry 18 3.23.11

Entry 18, March 23rd, 2011, 3:06pm (ship time)

I'm sitting on the back deck looking out over Falmouth, Jamaica, about halfway between Montego Bay and Kingstown. Today's port was a last-minute change; we were supposed to be in Montego Bay but apparently there was another ship scheduled for the berth there and we got diverted. As this is the second time that this has happened to the Grandeur in two and half weeks, I am beginning to figure out where we are on the food chain.

Yesterday the Oasis of the Seas, RCCL's flagship, was here, as is made obvious by all the "Welcome to Jamaica, Oasis!" signs and banners everywhere. I still have yet to see the Oasis, but considering that she's over twice the size we are, we must be kind of a letdown for the locals.

The port itself is totally manufactured. The town has been here for hundreds of years, but not as a major port for one very good reason -- there is no good achorage. The brand new concrete pier literally stretches straight out into the ocean, with no protection from the weather. Today calm and clear, and the Grandeur moves at her moorings like we're still at sea. Plumes of spray surge up at unpredictable intervals between the bumpers that keep the ship from riding up onto the pier.

RCCL's reason for building a new port in Jamaica is simple -- they don't have one of their own, and so their ships are subject to schedule disruptions (like we were today). Also, when they own their own port, the passengers will end up walking through RCCL-owned gift shops, restaurants, and the like. I suspect that the more timid among them will not even make it outside the port's gate, and dine and shop exclusively with RCCL. It makes good business sense for the company.

I'm out of money in the "shore expenditures" colum of my budget until pay day, but I went ashore anyway to walk around since I'm not sure if we'll ever be back here (also, I needed some fresh air). Once I got out past all the touristy stuff (and through the masses of vendors calling, "Amigo!" "Sir!" "Young man, take a look over here!" "Something for the lady?" (particularly confusing since I was alone (perhaps she assumed that I am so attractive I must be dating someone?))) I set out for what I thought would be handy landmark I had seen on the map -- the clocktower. It turns out that "clocktower" is rather optimistic . . . "clockbuilding" would have been more accurate, or just "clock." It did lead me to the center square in the town, where there was live music and more vendors.

The whole city is awash in new construction, spreading outwards from the pier, as the local economy adjusts to the influx of tourists and cruise ship money. A curious phenomenon -- all of the buildings have a fresh coat of paint on the side facing the ship, but many have not yet gotten one on the other three sides. They're getting there, but aren't done yet, as the scaffolding everywhere shows.

I kept walking, threading my way through the concrete roadblocks that serve to route the stream of tourists along a sort of commercial circuit through town, and followed the shore road along the coast. I passed a few beautiful old houses once owned by the city's elites, mostly rich plantation owners that were both black and white, male and female. None of the houses are extremely large by any standard, but they are elegant and well-designed, attractive to the eye and must be a joy to live in with the breeze, green vegetation, and the ocean right there across the street. Most of them had a "historic landmark" sign out front telling the story of the building, and there were a couple curious locations that have been marked but not repaired yet. For instance, there was one brand new landmark sign sitting in front of three ruined brick walls buried in weeds, describing a "spacious, airy mansion," -- looks like the construction crews haven't gotten to that particular spot yet.

One of the more interesting signs detailed the story of Henry Morgan, British pirate, privateer, admiral, and eventual governor of Jamaica. It's a fascinating story -- originally Morgan was a pirate, hired by Britain to ruin the Spainiards' day. He was so succesful that he ended up a Rear Admiral in command of over 16 vessels and led his own army across the isthumus of Panama to sack Panama City, hauling away hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of silver. For this action he was made governor of Jamaica (and incredibly wealthy), a post from which he decided to eradicate piracy! Talk about irony.

I'm not saying that I want to live in the 19th century Caribbean, but I do feel like those sorts of opportunities are hard to come by these days. I have a hard time imagining a way in the modern era that I could do anything similarly adventurous, or end up being the king of an entire island just by being brave, smart, and lucky. Not much swashbuckling to be had in the 21st century. Even piracy is lame now (yar! Avast, I steal ye software via the interblag! Suck me gums, ye scurvy sea dogs!).

On the other hand, antibiotics are nice to have, and I would have died in middle school from appendicitis if I'd been born in the early 1800's like Morgan. Tradeoffs.

I kept following the road and soon got out of the touristy bits of Falmouth. I passed the local boys' and girls' school where kids in brown uniforms were playing and loitering around on lunch. The school building is actually the old fort's barracks and uses the stone walls as the schoolyard boundary. The fort was built to protect the town from the Spanish, pirates, and drunkards, or so the sign said, and was actually the second fort built to protect the town. The first one was built in the center of the city, but was moved when citizens complained that the firing of cannons for ceremonies and salutes lit their roofs on fire (heh. Bit of a design flaw there, wouldn't you say?).

I kept walking along the side of the road, passing the Jamaican Constubalary and Trelawny Infirmary (Trelawny is a town that joins with Falmouth, sort of a suburb). I passed the spot where presumably local kids go to get in trouble . . . there was a small path down to the beach, where I found a fire pit and a bunch of empty beer bottles. From there I took a turn inland, following a couple one way streets past the sports field (empty at that point, and slightly abandoned) and through a couple neighborhoods. It was a nice walk, and reminded me a lot of how Michigan feels during a mid-July hot streak (except that the sea breeze keeps the humidity away). I could live here and be pretty happy, although I'd want to visit in summer sometime first.

The houses in Falmouth are mostly in fairly good repair. Most sport tin or tile roofs, with timber walls either painted or plastered. Glass windows don't seem to be a necessity here, although the nicer buildings have them. Some buildings are shabby, of course, but nothing scarier than what you'd find back home. Most of the streets have open gutters, and one's nose is occasionally subjected to quite the collection of smells. I passed a few old, ornate stone churches, most of them dating to the "Awakening of Jamaica" starting in the 1840's, when the Baptist ministry experienced a period of intense growth (the local Baptist church doubled in size during that time period).

Architecture in general is very different in the Caribbean than back home in Michigan (as is to be expected, I suppose). Freed from the constraint of winter and unable to afford air conditioning, many businesses are partially or wholly outdoors. I passed a bar today whose walls existed only for privacy, leaving a foot wide gap at the bottom for the proprietor to hose off the floor into the street.

I stuck out like a sore thumb here. I mean, I stick out everywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, but here especially. You know that feeling you get when everyone is looking at you but trying to be discreet about it? That was me today. They were all very nice about it, of course, a couple people waving and asking if I was lost, but I am definitely an outsider here.

A few of my friends from the cast were shown around town by a local girl, and they tipped her twenty dollars at the end of the afternoon. There's nothing wrong with this, but I am beginning to figure out what is so strange about the tourist/local relationship. Being a local, there are all sorts of things you can give to a tourist. You can feed them, show them around your home city, give them advice, show them local customs, etc. As a tourist, though, you can only respond by giving one thing back -- money, the most impersonal of gifts. The power relationship is too out of balance for there to be any sort of meaningful interaction or learning from one another, because to pay a local for something they love (whether it be food or directions to a beautiful place) is to cheapen it. It says, "You know that beach that you and your brothers grew up playing on? The place you would drink beer stolen from your parents with the other fourteen year olds? The place you took your wife to propose? It's worth about twenty bucks." Like I said, there's nothing wrong with this (people gotta earn a living), but it prevents actually "meeting" anyone in any of these places that I visit. Any experience that could help us learn about each other as human beings becomes a business transaction.

I wish there was a way for me to give something back that was more meaningful than money. Maybe this is me being an idealistic fool (me? an idealistic fool? never!), but it would be nice to actually meet and learn about and become friends with the people from other places, instead of having to grimly force my way through crowds of grinning peddlers and taxi drivers with my teeth clamped together in a blank-faced scowl.

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