When it came time to leave, Alton pulled up in a newer looking crossover and invited everyone in. Connor and Deon decided to stay in their own car, but agreed to follow behind. As we made our way to Negril, we passed through a number of a number of villages and hamlets. I was surprised at the similarities the architecture had with New Orleans. Some places were so familiar looking that I could place them in a parallel space back home. Magazine street here, Poland street there. It was uncanny. People who came from or traveled to the Caribbean often told me that New Orleans was the northernmost Caribbean city, but I never had proof. They were certainly right in some respects–others than the fact that people from the African continent often said New Orleans was an African city and Europeans said that it was European. My takeaway is that my home is all of those things and none of them at all. I’m sure that someone is frying butter and eating it wholesale somewhere at this very moment in the city. In that way, we’re all American. I shared some of these insights with Alton as well as showed him some pictures of New Orleans. He was intrigued at the similarities himself and expressed an interest to visit.
This street in Jamaica could almost be cut and pasted in New Orleans and no one would blink.
On more than one occasion, guys came wheelying down the road on a their standards and dirt bikes without helmets at literal breakneck speeds. I asked Alton why this trend was so popular. “I don’t understand”, Alton said. “They drive with no helmet because they’re stupid. They die every day. Every day.” I nodded and there was some silence. “I was like them too”, Alton said quietly. “I could ride like them, better than them. Last year I was riding at a high speed and hit a turn bad and feel off. My friends found me and told my mother. I almost died. I have not been on a bike since”. I was stunned at how matter of fact Alton was about being thrown from his bike. He wasn’t one for drama or embellishment, but he wasn’t necessarily shy either. This was the truth. “Will you ride again?”, I probed. He gave an imp’s smile. “Of course”, he replied. “I might go tomorrow”.
A couple of emcees for one of the beach bars were spraying college girls with tequila filled super-soakers when we made it to Negril beach. I immediately knew I had guessed wrong about getting a more human experience in Jamaica. It was so hot that I felt that if the group grinded too vigorously they catch fire. Bypassing the crowd and danger, I took to the beach to see what it was about. It was just about noon when we arrived any without any cloud cover, the white beach nearly blended in with the ocean that shimmered with the quality of mercury. There seemed to be so much one could do: horseback riding, parasailing and gliding, riding wave-runners, sand sculpting and other sand-related activities, swimming, and not to mention getting super soaked. I just wanted a coconut but had to show “respect” to get one.
At some point, I got separated from everyone. It wasn’t even some point, it was 5 min in. 7 Mile Beach in Negril is, well, 7 miles long. It’s a vast, beautiful place where you can actually interact and be with the natives who go to the beach as a source of both business and pleasure. I saw a number of people drinking from coconuts on the beach. I’d never seen something so seemingly refreshing in the moment, like a pint-size oasis. As I made my way to the water, an artisan grabbed my hand and asked me to buy a wool bracelet she claimed to have made from scratch. I politely declined and she then insisted that she had 4 children to feed and pleaded with me to buy. As I left the area, partially searching for my party, partially searching for my coconut, the artisan cursed to herself bitterly and with equal speed, put on a smile to sell again to another passerby. This is the jerk chicken all over again, I thought to myself. Not five steps later, I ran into another fellow who refused to leave my side, no matter how much I expressed that I didn’t want what he was selling (another bracelet, same as the artisan before).
My new skin was a spry man with slender features, sunken, wily eyes, an onion crown of dreaded hair, and lips and skin patchy with dark spots. His voice was calm and steady though, but couldn’t mask his cunning, a fact that I made plain and present to him as the gritty sand between our toes. I had not only seen this hustle in Jamaica but in New Orleans as well and I wouldn’t be had again. We eventually began to share stories of life and in particular the beach. He worked here to hustle, selling his various wares, as well as acting as a scout for a nearby tiki shack. He ultimately wanted to be my guide for the day, to show some of the best parts of the beach to photograph. I declined because I had Alton after all, but did agree to let him show me where to find my coconut. It turns out that he sold them himself. After a bit of dancing around the sale, we made our way around to the side of his tiki. We were in plain view, we were invisible. It wasn’t lost on me that he could’ve declined the sale altogether and ask for my wallet. Instead, he ran to the back and grabbed a rusted, yet incredibly sharp machete and in one swooping motion, sliced the top of a coconut and gave it to me. We agreed upon $5 dollars after some prodding. I gave him a $10 and he gave me J$5000. I immediately pushed back on this. This wasn’t proper change, but he had the machete in his hand and I didn’t. I wasn’t going to squabble over the change (even though I wanted to). Coconut in hand, I made my way back towards the tequila hut to try and find my folks, but they were nowhere to be found. I took a sip. Albeit a pinch warm, the coconut was indeed good. I’d never had one and felt that I was getting a morsel of the native Jamaican experience, however little it was. As I walked, one by one I gathered everyone and explained the coconut, awkwardly, and then made our way back towards the car.