Friday, February 24, 2012

Walls

Montego Bay, Jamaica
Wednesday February 15, 2012
3:58PM


As soon as I step off the plane, I am greeted with a welcome wall of heat. Walking through the quiet Montego Bay airport, I am mentally cataloguing all the similarities and differences between what I am accustom to and what I am experiencing. Everyone that deplaned with me meanders through the airport, seemingly shedding the break neck pace of America and getting on island time. I look around once we reach customs and we’re standing in line, watching everyone shifting nervously in line despite not being particularly guilty of anything. It is then that I first realize that I am surrounded almost entirely by white people. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t expect the exact opposite, but I suppose, in the middle of the winter and flying mid-week like most tourists do, I need to adjust my expectations. After relishing the satisfying clunk of the new stamp in my passport, I gather my bags and head to the lounge reserved for guests of the resort where I am staying.

It’s lovely. All soft lighting and comfortable chairs, gleaming wood and a full bar, everything you would hope to find greeting you after a long flight (well, not so much for me with a 2 hour flight, a 50 minute layover and then an 1 hour flight). When I walk in, the employees look up and smile at me but can’t hide the split second look of shock that cross their faces. I return their warm smiles and retreat to a corner to curl up with my Ki.ndle and read until the shuttle arrives to take me to the resort.

Instead though, I start to look around. Immediately, I’m struck by the stark racial divide at play here; the well-to-do white folks being catered to by brown people. I notice these things, though I'd like to believe I am evolved enough, post racial enough, indeed not racist enough to notice. But despite all my education and travels and knowledge, I am still a daughter of the deep south. Born of 1 of the most dirtily racist states in the confederacy. And no matter where I go, whether I like to admit it or not, I carry with me the history of every time I've been called a nigger. Every time I have been met with surprise at my aptitude because of my skin color. Every time I've been followed in a store or sneered at by a white man or called gal or overheard a child innocently asking why my skin was different. Whether I like it or not, I see things through the prism of descending from a lineage of strange fruit hanging from poplar trees. I cannot not see with these eyes.

It's important I note that this quiet discomfort wasn't prompted by any mistreatment or even a shared knowing look passed between me and my skin folk acknowledging "you know how they are." Rather, I have to admit there seems to be a kind and easy report between these fairer skin tourists and the employees here to welcome them; certainly they aren't getting together later for beers, but there is no condescension, no air of rudeness or privilege, no tangible evidence that anyone but me has noticed the clear racial delineation between those that have and those that have not. I can’t tell if everyone but me really is just blind to it, if the white folks are too privileged to notice, or if the black people are too worried about providing for themselves to care. Still, there exists a wall of sorts, between the smiling faces that greeted us, and the people patronizing the resort. It is invisible and certainly not barbed wired but it exists nonetheless.

I am not out and out uncomfortable with it all, but I notice. Just as I notice, with a painful twinge, the older black men shining the shoes of often white business men in the airport. As I notice when a porter, usually brown, is helping carry bags and is barely afforded a grateful glance.

I notice.

Once outside the airport and on the 90 minute trip to Ocho Rios, I am again unsettled by my surroundings. Without even trying, there seems to be a distinct demarcation between classes here, as well; there’s the multi-million dollar resorts on the beach front. There’s the large, looming houses on the mountain. And in between there is miles of shacks and bumpy roads and abandoned buildings. In between, it seems, is for Everyone Else.
We drive past a row of large, gated houses, not nearly as large as the homes built into the mountain side but still fairly sizeable, that seem a bit out of place next to the stretch of highway and among the random gas stations and small businesses that dot the roads. It doesn’t take me long to notice that these homes are not merely gated; rather they are confined by 8 foot cement walls and sealed with heavy, impenetrable iron gates. A quick glance at the houses nestled in the mountains reveals that these homes aren’t just built on the mountain for the panoramic views. Rather they are quite literally built into the mountainside, the jagged terrain providing a wall made from nature to augment even more imposing gates around their properties than those on the beach front.
When we finally reach our resort, the story is still much of the same, our beautiful, lush, multi-million dollar resort that just underwent a multi-million dollar renovation is walled from its surroundings by wrought iron and concrete, standing next to, quite literally, a building that appears to be gutted and is slowly decaying.
Where the hell is all this money going, if not to the people?
It seems that in Jamaica, as in America, as in so many other countries I have travelled to and read about, a profound chasm exists between the haves and the have nots and with it, a concerted effort to either keep those who have less out, or keep what you have acquired in. Or maybe every wall is just an attempt to block the blight that exists in our own backyards.

2 comments:

yours truly said...

As a person of Caribbean descent (with Jamaican roots from a few generations back), a piece of this magnitude is something only the gifted can execute sans the arrogance that can come from a foreigner/non-local judging a context that they have not lived in enough to absorb and form a valid opinion on. Even with its painful reality, this is beautiful.

I remember your musing on Twitter about people tending to be more responsive to fluff & ratchetness more than heavy topics like this. Just wanted to say not to let it discourage you. Keep writing. Something tells me a lot of folks didn't comment because it's hard to be a long time reader and just leave a superficial one-liner to work this deep. And possibly, that despite the focus being Jamaica, certain remnants hit closer to home than some were ready to handle.

The non-response is telling but I think people are definitely reading. And absorbing. And appreciating (even if in silence). Looking forward to your next post as always.

Louis Brown III said...

"And no matter where I go, whether I like to admit it or not, I carry with me the history of every time I've been called a nigger. Every time I have been met with surprise at my aptitude because of my skin color. Every time I've been followed in a store or sneered at by a white man or called gal or overheard a child innocently asking why my skin was different. Whether I like it or not, I see things through the prism of descending from a lineage of strange fruit hanging from poplar trees. I cannot not see with these eyes."

That paragraph is way too real and (especially being from FLA)something i have had to try and explain to others all the time to only get confused and doubting looks back.