18th September 1996. I’m on a beach. It is like a prototype of the ideal beach – a fringe of palm trees, bath-warm water gently lapping at the shore, bright blue sky, turquoise sea and fine white sand. It’s deserted save for three women splashing in the surf in the distance. From somewhere beyond the palm trees behind us, the faint air of an old reggae tune can be heard, cheerfully denouncing the evils of Babylonian oppression. I’m lying on an old faded beach towel, with my head resting on a small backpack which holds all my possessions. Simon is lying beside me, half-asleep on his towel, with his backpack beside him.
As we laze in the sun, the women in the distance get slowly closer.. They are girls, no more than 17 or 18 years old. All three are tall, slim, nubile and attractive, with deep brown skin, and ringlets arranged in elaborate swirls. They wear bikinis, with sheer, thong-style bottoms and tiny tops. They appear to be half-playing, half choreographing an elaborate acrobatic dance routine. One of them stops, gets down on all fours in the surf, and gyrates her hips through the water, while the other two straddle her, or do cartwheels across her back. From time to time, they miss a step and fall splashing down into the water in a gigging heap of arms, legs and ringlets.
As I lie there, idly watching their dances out of the corner of my eye, I wonder to myself whether I’ve drifted off into a dream. Nubile girls frolicking provocatively in the surf seems a bit closer to fantasy than to any real beach I’ve ever been on. But, I’m in a new place, maybe people do things differently here. Maybe it’s just that young girls choose sexualised forms of play as that’s what they see on television. I doze off musing about televised sexualisation and cultural appropriation.
I wake with a start. Something has bounced off my stomach. I look around and spot the missile – a yellow plum-like fruit lies beside me on the sand. I hear peals of laughter from my other side. It’s the girls – they are now no more than 10 metres away, still cavorting in the surf, directly between me and the sea. Their laughter and the bag of fruit that one of them is carrying identifies them as the fruit-throwing culprits, but they don’t seem to care. They merrily continue their dancing game. The dance has become more sexual. One girl lies down in the surf, while the others take turns in straddling her, writhing backward and forward along her body and thrusting their hips provocatively towards her face.
They keep getting closer, tumbling and dancing up the beach towards us. Two of them lie down together, wrapped up in each other’s arms, looking coquettishly towards me. The third girl starts to do a dance in front of Simon’s as he lies on his back. He is not comfortable – as she writhes before him, he jumps up, turns to me and says “I’m going for a swim – mind the stuff” and runs past the girls, gallops into the sea, dives in and starts to swim away from the shore. It’s just me and the three girls. Gulp.
The girl who had been dancing over Simon moves on to me, still lying on the sand. She writhes rhythmically in front of me: her hips, torso and buttocks gyrating in synch with some imaginary lover. I have no idea what to do. Life has left me utterly unprepared for a situation like this. I lie back and try to ignore her, but she keeps advancing. Now she has straddled me. Her upper body is lowered down towards mine and she holds it there, hovering just above me. I manage a few weak words of protestation – “Stop - I’ve a girlfriend” - but they have no effect. She thrusts her breasts towards my face and then pulls back to rub them along my chest. The body-dance continues and escalates. Now she has planted her feet on either side of my head and is thrusting her crotch into my face – smacking her pelvic bone into my nose. Her friends yelp encouragement. Through her squatting legs I can make out the distant sight of Simon’s head bobbing in the waves, far out to sea.
After bouncing her crotch off my nose a few times, she switches position, plants her hands on either side of my head and starts to perform a sort of push-up over me. With each repetition, she lowers her lips slowly towards mine, then pulls them away at the last moment, while pressing her body against mine. Through my terror, something catches the corner of my eye – her left hand has crept into the pocket of my bag and her fingers are wriggling around inside. Finally, I know what to do. I grab both of her wrists, roll my body over and pin her to the sand beneath me. I hold her there for a minute to emphasise my point before releasing her, climbing to my feet, grabbing my bag from the sand and gathering all of our clothes and bags together into an easily defensible pile.
Neither the dancing girl nor her two friends took kindly to this development. They retreated a few metres, then stopped and settled in to shout abuse at me. I shouted back to warn them that I would report them to the police. They appeared unperturbed by my threats, however, and continued to throw insults my way. I couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying as many of the words were in the local patois, but the gist of their complaints seemed to be that I was obviously cheap and quite possibly gay. I tried to meet their insults with some verbal resistance, but was overwhelmed by volleys of jibes. I gestured for Simon to return, but was unable to catch his eye as he bobbed away blissfully in the distance, so I lay back, shut my eyes and tried to ignore them. This was a bad idea. Almost as soon as I had closed my eyes, a projectile hit me in the testicles. I thrust myself upright in pain to see that the three girls were now deploying their bag fruit as ammunition with my crotch as their target. They were good shots. I gamely protected our belongings, while warding off the stream of projectiles that was unleashed against my tender parts. Finally, Simon returned and, as I admonished him for abandoning me, we gathered our gear together as quickly as we could and left the beach, with the girls’ taunting cries echoing behind us.
Three days earlier we had been in Vancouver, where we had worked for the Summer. I had been a minimum-wage barrista in a coffee shop. Simon got the lucky number, as usual, and spent the Summer behind the bar in a fashionable pool hall that was full of edgy, creative types – what would nowadays be called hipsters.
France was my ultimate destination. I had decided to do the third year of my computer science degree in Lyon, as part of the EU’s Erasmus program, and classes were starting soon. One motivation was provided by my earlier encounters with French street politics, strikes and the vibrant underground counter-culture. I had still only scratched the surface of that world and wanted to understand it better. However, by far the overriding motivation was provided by my new girlfriend, Deirdre Hogan who was doing an Erasmus program in Grenoble. I wasn’t prepared to leave her to the French for a whole year.
In Vancouver, I had been trying to save enough money to visit Cuba before returning to Europe. I had always wanted to visit a socialist country and Cuba was almost the last one left. My father had crossed the iron curtain as part of his journalism work in the 1980s and had brought back intriguing tales of that curious world. In 1991, I had traveled for a week through Eastern Europe, and found the crumbling remnants of no-longer-existing socialism to be fascinating. In 1996, it seemed reasonably likely that Cuba, North Korea and even China might be imminently following the USSR into the new world order’s garbage heap. What’s more, its revolution gave the world Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – as glamorous as it gets on the far left.
However, getting there was far from easy. The US had tightened its blockade with the fall of the USSR, in the hope that the Cuban state would not be able to survive without aid. The only flights to Cuba from anywhere in North America were via Toronto and prohibitively expensive. The second problem was that Simon was not convinced by my proposal. He wanted to end the Summer with fun, sun and sand, and Cuban communism sounded a little too much like hard work for his tastes. Somebody had told him about the nicest little spot in the Caribbean, a little beach in West Jamaica called Negril. We finally settled on a plan of traveling first to Jamaica and, from there, we would try to find a way of getting to Cuba, which was little more than 200km away, after all.
Getting from Vancouver to Jamaica, the cheap way, required a bus to Seattle, a flight to Fort Lauderdale, a bus to Miami and a flight to Kingston – 30 hours travel in total. Not only were we tired upon arrival, we were not very well prepared. We had tried to find a guide-book to either of our destinations, but had flatly failed. The only guides to the Caribbean we could find were targeted at the luxury end of the market and hence weren’t relevant to our interests. Nevertheless, we were, by now, reasonably well-traveled and used to living transiently without many creature comforts and felt confident that we’d be able to get by. It couldn’t be as bad as India.
We strolled from the plane into Kingston’s terminal building at about 6pm on a typically sun-drenched evening. Our plan was to get a bus downtown, find a hostel or cheap hotel near the station and catch the bus to Negril first thing in the morning. There were, however, no signs for buses or other transportation in the airport terminal, so we approached a lady at a small information desk and asked her where we might find a bus into the city. She looked taken aback. “Why you wan’ go downtown? Downtown nuh safe” she said, shaking her head. I was predisposed to believe that this was the opening gambit of a hustler routine and that she would swiftly suggest an alternative location. It soon became clear, however, that she didn’t have an alternative to offer us, yet she remained stubbornly insistent that we really couldn’t go downtown now that it was getting dark, and that there were no hotels there anyway. The old-fashioned fussiness of her protestations proved compelling. She soon found somebody whose brother had a spare room in his house – in mid-town - and organised for another brother to drive us there.
Kingston has a spectacular setting. Behind it rise the lush and steep slopes of the Blue Mountains, providing a bowl shaped backdrop to the city. Between the mountains and the sea is a shallow circular bowl, maybe 8km in diameter, where the city lies. The airport is situated on a spit of land that protrudes into the sea in front of the central downtown area, providing a sweeping view across the city’s seafront, although was falling as we drove from the airport to the city, giving us a murky first impression. We passed through a succession of seemingly derelict neighbourhoods, along rough, intermittently lit roads. As we left the sea behind us, the signs of dereliction slowly started to fade – the houses were still small and basic but became tidy and well-maintained. Shops and functioning commercial premises started to appear.
We were delivered to one of these small, simple, tidy houses, where we were greeted by an elderly gentleman, who welcomed us and made us tea and supper. He was a kind man, endearingly old-fashioned and colonial in his manner and turn of phrase, which made up for his tendency to try to convert his guests to his particular brand of Baptist religion. He made us a breakfast of plantain and egg-fruit before showing us around the neighbourhood and his church in particular before showing us to a main road where we might find a taxi to bring us to the bus station downtown.
The search for a taxi started poorly. The first taxi driver responded “downtown nuh quiet” and refused to take us. This made us a little uneasy as to the wisdom of our plan, but we had little choice – we weren’t going to spend the next 3 weeks in a nondescript suburb of Kingston. Eventually we managed to persuade a man to take us, although he looked disconcertingly nervous about the whole business and insisted upon a significant cash incentive. The bus-station was right in the heart of downtown, towards the waterfront, and we had to drive through the whole city to get there. In the midday sun, central Kingston is a rare sight to behold. As we drove through the city, I asked myself questions such as “where is the city?” and “are we sure the driver’s going the right way, it just looks like piles of debris, shacks, lumps of concrete and shanty towns to me?”. It has a post-apocalyptic air to it, weirdly quiet and empty, with occasional clumps of people scratching out a living among the decay.
Kingston’s layout follows a simple economic gradient. The rich live on the hill behind the city, the people with government jobs live at the base of the mountain and the rest of the city down to the sea is run-down, low-rise and full of poor people without jobs. It is not a big city – with a population of half a million in 1996 – but still manages to consistently deliver one of the highest murder rates in the world. A number of factors play into this. Jamaica has a history of competition between rival political elites spilling over into armed battles in the ghettoes. It is also a waypoint on the Caribbean cocaine trade. Its division of wealth is glaringly lopsided. Lots of unemployed young men, widely available adrenalin-inducing drugs, and elite factions who will supply arms to gangs does not make for a happy mix.
The bus-station is a dusty yard, surrounded by a cement-block wall, with a few minibuses and vans scattered around and a great throng of people milling about them. We plunged out of our taxi and into the throng, causing a brief stir as the hawkers and vendors descended upon us. The throng released us into one of the minibuses whose very pleasant driver sold us a ticket for Negril but advised us that it would be at least an hour before we set off. He told us that there had been a big shoot out in town that morning, in which "4 boys done gunned down" but all was quiet now. We decided to take a stroll into Kingston to get a view of it from street level, rather than hanging around the station. A few minutes from the station, we turned a corner to see a large flat-bed truck in front of us. The back of the truck was full to the brim with speakers – huge bass speakers, 8 feet high. On top of the speakers was a platform upon which three young men in camouflage fatigues, mirror sunglasses and silver chains were sprawled. Another 5 or 6 similarly-dressed young men were leaning against walls on either side of the truck. They stared at us. A deep and powerful bass-line reverberated through the speakers, and a hard, aggressive ragamuffin voice boomed out a vocal accompaniment. Their collective ability to project menace was impressive. They combined the heavily armed, unpredictability of an African militia, with the studied coolness of a gangsta hip-hop crew. We smiled weakly. They stared. We turned around and scurried back to the bus station.
4 hours later, we stumbled out of a minivan, tired and sore, straight onto Negril beach, the far South Western corner of the island, straight onto a perfect deserted beach, where we met these three nice girls...
The second part of this story will be published on Friday