The Port from Where I Set Sail: The Beginning
My name is Peter George Smith. My life began quite a number of years ago in eastern Jamaica. It was almost Christmastime when I arrived at the world’s doorsteps, hastily, in a little district called Norris. Norris is in the town of Yallahs, part of the historic parish of St. Thomas. It was at a point in time just before Jamaica cut the Union Jack’s flutter for good one August night; on that night she declared to George, her father, that she was all grown up and, as such, big enough to move out on her own.
I cannot remember much about my infancy, except for what I have picked up from a dim silent movie occasionally running through my head; it is of rains and of water rising on the slightly sloping swath of land that separated our house from Collier’s Spring. Once, years ago when I rewound the movie and ran it for my mother, she told me it reminded her of Hurricane Flora, which had devastated the eastern part of Jamaica a few years earlier. That’s when I started learning the game of connecting the dots. I had gone through my first hurricane so fearlessly that I only realized I had after the fact. Thanks to the movie.
Primary school time I remember quite well though. The school I went to was on a little hill in Easington, a district across the big iron bridge that separated it from Norris. At both ends of the bridge still stand today the towers that formed part of an old swinging bridge, relics of the days when plantation owners needed to traverse the Yallahs River. Whenever rain caught my friends and me on the way to or from school, the one at the western end provided shelter, for there were no houses in its vicinity that we could dash to in order to keep our books from getting soaked. The school itself was beside Buryin’ Grung, where, we were told, slaves had been laid to rest when they had grown too tired to carry on and the earth had called them home, but no ships were available to take them back across the ocean.
We used to occasionally take short-cuts through Buryin’ Grung to get to school in the mornings, especially if we were late. After school, we would take that route home only if we didn’t have extra lessons for Common Entrance; for whenever we had those lessons, the sun would have gone down by the time we were done, increasing the risk that we might run into the odd duppy that would be getting an early start on his nightly jaunts. We did not think kindly of duppies; in fact, we were terrified of them, so we kept out of their way. We did not want to upset them either: If we pointed at anything in Buryin’ Grung, like a bird or a lizard, unthinking, we immediately had to bite on the offending finger. Chances were either of them could be a duppy, who, in retaliation to being pointed at, would make that finger rot till it fell off our hand. A firm but gentle bite was the antidote.
Summers were long back then, broken up by carefree days spent with friends catching janga in the Yallahs River. On the days we were tired of the river, we set springes with dried gungo peas from my mother’s corn and peas crop to trap ground doves, white wings and barble doves. Janga soup and fried birds were culinary specialties we prepared in butter pans on wood fires, seasoned with salt and scotch bonnets. Salt was cheap and scotch bonnets were free. (Thinking back years later, I realized that the adults had lied to us when they tasted our food and told us it was good)… Gathering mangoes in the hills and transporting them in cartoon boxes on our heads back down to lowland made our necks crick. But it did not matter, for the spoils of the sweet mangoes would numb the stiffness and the pain later on. So long were the summers that by the time free paper bu’n and we got back to school, girls walking stoosh on the first day in their sugar-starched pleats, and boys strutting with seams standing proud like the twin towers, many of us had forgotten the lessons of the past term. Our teachers saw to it though, that the switches from the willow tree growing by the fence at the front of the schoolyard and the leather straps, said to be soaked in water, quickly plugged and refilled the holes that summer had punched in our heads, causing our times tables, verbs and predicates to leak out.
It is life in those formative years, growing up with my parents and siblings, my village parents and friends, that created the foundation for successfully wending my way to the present. I left Norris for good when I moved away to university in Kingston, but I still go back quite often, sometimes several times a year. So much so now that I feel, at times, like I had never left. I spend time with family and old school friends that still live there whenever I go. My parents are now dearly departed, my mother years before my father, but some of their peers are still there, and showing up on their doorsteps in some of the most inaccessible places to say hello tickles my heart every time. They peer at me through squinting eyes until recognition propels them towards me with shuffled haste. “Oh Laad, a no Peter dat! Mi glad fi si yu. Yu no figat wi at all!” And I wait for the inevitable hugs and back-pats from the men, and the hugs plus wet kisses on my jaw from the women. And though sometimes they have just come from the farm, sweaty and smelly and grimy, I yield unhesitating, and I feel joy.
Today I live in Florida. Since Jamaica, I have had the good fortune of living in several countries, either studying or working. Others have been for tours of fun and discovery. Nowadays I mostly visit them for work. Coming from an island described as a dot on the map, hemmed in on all corners by water, my time and adventures overseas have given me the chance to truly understand how vast the world is, but still ever so tiny. Physically large it is, yet small, because of the similarities of mankind in the most disparate places. Deep down we are the same. I speak several foreign languages, and they have helped pry open even wider for me some of the smallest windows on the world I have peered through. Through it all, this little now-grown kid from Jamaica has seen and experienced a lot of what both Jamaica and the wider world are. And I am open to sharing it all with you. Just sidle up to my periscope and take a look through…lots to discover and experience from what you will see at the other end. Do follow my blog… and leave your comments… please.
Glossary/Explanation of Jamaican Words and Expressions
Buryin’ Grung = cemetery; used in this context as a place name (proper noun)
Butter pans = round tin containers in which, ironically, cheese is sold, and which are recycled into cooking and eating receptacles after the cheese is removed
Cartoon boxes = cardboard carton boxes
Duppy = ghost
Free paper bu’n = “free papers burnt” signaling the end of the holidays and time to return to school. Akin to slaves having been released and then having had their freedom taken back.
Janga = crayfish
Stoosh = proud, haughty
Switch = typically a twig from a tree branch, used to administer corporal punishment
Village parents = adults, especially women, in rural communities who informally help “raise” the children of their neighbors