My last days in Jamaica were emotional and magical. Friday June 1st was my birthday and much good news came that day for everyone around me. Fellowships, scholarships, job offers, book blurbs…it seemed to be a birthday for everyone I came in touch with. The day itself was full of dramatic thunderstorms and naps and that night Kei took me to get yummy cake and then to a low key party to see the film Bent which I had never heard of before (it’s from 1997). It’s a disturbing look at Nazi Germany’s treatment of its queer community and the men forced to wear the pink triangle in the concentration camps. Its disturbing imagery seemed to underline my feeling of unease at being openly gay in such a violently homophobic country like Jamaica.
I heard stories that underscored this—openly gay and lesbian students on UWI’s campus threatened and harassed at knife point about their sexuality–”Your kind’s not welcome here.” “The only reason I don’t cut you right here is the number of people around.” And the knife point interrogations of people perceived to be gay or lesbian. The worst story was an incident involving a family “burned out” of their home in downtown Kingston. At least that’s what the news reported. The family was actually four men living in the same house (interesting that they were granted “family” status). The community perceived them to be gay and came to their doorstep, giving them an ultimatum to leave in 24 hours as they were going to burn the house. The men packed what they could carry and left, but one returned to retrieve a possession he forgot. The community was waiting for him, and in addition to the beating he received, they branded him. Actually branded him, heating a piece of metal from the fire they set to his house. He was in critical care at the hospital, but the media were not reporting this story.
The morning of the day I left we went to Hope Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens near Kei’s house.
There are sections of the garden that make you feel as if you are in Europe, with its walls and terraces and sculpted hedges. And then there are reminders that you are not in Europe but the Tropics. Such as a parrot carrying on at the top of a leafless palm tree:
Here’s a pond full of lily pads.
And a shot of a field and trees:
These white birds were so still they appeared to be statues. And then they all lifted up in unison:
Here’s a fallen blossom from the Flame of the Forest tree:
There is an old amusement park here called “The Coconut Park” that has been abandoned to high ruinate. Kei used to use his father’s stamps to stamp his hand to gain free entry when he was a kid. The place is overgrown in a creepy horror movie kind of way:
Ghost of the roller coaster:
More abandoned structures (there was a merry-go-round and tilt-a-whirl and a train that ran through the park amongst other buildings being reclaimed by the land):
Kei posing in Lovers’ Lane:
After the park we drove around New Kingston, going to the UWI bookstore and a bookstore downtown, and visiting the National Gallery where I got to see work by the Intuitives and Barrington Watson’s famous Mother and Child. We also visited Emancipation Park (nicknamed “A Penis Park” after the pronunciation of “Happiness” in a popular reggae song which offers commentary on the park’s rather endowed sculpture of a freed slave).
We worked our way toward the airport, stopping at one of Kei’s favorite spots:
I don’t know the story of the Pilar del Caribe, but it’s something to just sit on the beach and watch the waves crash over it. While we were there a number of couples arrived and climbed the ladder on the ship’s side, going up into the sea-salt rusted structure.
A close-up of the ship:
We continued on to Port Royal, once the richest and wickedest city in the world, a home for pirates and wealth and gambling and whoring, and a place that sunk in a massive earthquake on June 7th, 1692. From here we looked across the harbor at Kingston as if we were out at sea, feeling the silence of my imminent departure descend around us, enjoying these last hours of each other’s company. I looked up to see a frigate hovering overhead:
One of my last images of Kei, sitting on the sand dunes:
That’s a version of my trip. There are more stories, stories I have censored, stories I will tell in poem form. And more of Jamaica to explore on a future trip: the Blue Mountains, Cockpit Country, Negril to name but a few places. In the meantime I will continue to learn about the island through its literature and through Kei’s stories.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my attempts to document a pivotal trip that has set my imagination off in a new direction. I’ve already drafted a handful of new poems and have the sketch for a sequence that will chronicle the emotional and intellectual terrain of this trip. I’ll let you know when the project is ready for its debut…