Hey guys! It's Alan, and as you can see I'm back on Goodbye, Me after a long hiatus. Since my last post, I've spent time in Louisiana, Oregon, and Massachusetts, as well as back home in North Carolina. But now, I am in Jamaica and ready to start blogging again. Why am I in Jamaica? Well, my girlfriend Laura and I are first and foremost, studying birds, but adventure is a big part of it as well. We are working for a graduate student at Tulane University, and in turn the the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Our study is focusing on American Redstarts and Black-throated Blue Warblers, two species of warbler that breed in eastern North America and spend the rest of the year here in the West Indies. What's remarkable about those two species in particular is the fact that they hold winter territories, and the dynamics of these territories is what we are studying. A single redstart will return to the same tree to spend the winter, year after year, all after over a 1,000 mile journey! WOWZA! But more on that in later posts... I'll keep it streamlined for now. Basically, Laura and I will be down here until May, capturing and studying birds and exploring the world of Jamaica. SOoooo... without further ado... let's start the journey. Here is post #1...
January 14th, 2012
As the plane descended into Montego Bay the stewardess came onto the intercom. She declared that everyone should get ready, because it was 84 degrees on the ground! Roars of exultation came from the rabid tourists who had been ordering cocktails and mini-bottles since the flight had taken off. Not everyone on the flight was so responsive to the weather announcement however. A young, fat rastafari in a wife beater and stocking cap sat quietly and a black man next to me offered me two Halls cough drops after I had sneezed into my hand. He promptly fell asleep against the window after that, which was okay with me, as I preferred to sit in silence as we approached.
Well, it was true. Montego Bay was indeed 84 degrees, and as the plane skimmed just above the coastline, aquamarine water met white sand just as it should. Beyond the coastline strand, verdant hills rose up into lush forest, where small colorful buildings were barely visible, tucked beneath the fronds, fruits, and flowers.
The humidity hit me like a wall as we filed out of the plane and into the airport. Moving through a bare white hallway, I followed the signs towards immigration. I had taken a separate flight than Laura and Ashley, who had arrived on a plane about 30 minutes before I had. Arriving at immigration, I was greeted by a line of 300 people, making switchbacks toward the front . Ashley had informed me that I might get some questioning from the immigration officers regarding the length of my stay, which, at four months, was a rarity among visitors. At long last I arrived at the booth, and answered a series questions – How long is your visit? What will your address be? What is the purpose of your visit? I answered all as I should. I will be here until May 10th. My address will be Kew Park, Betheltown. I am a volunteer on a scientific research project. I am a volunteer. All my expenses are paid. Repeat. I am not getting paid. She promptly asked – Who is your boss? I said she is over there in baggage claim. Her name is Ashley. Then I remembered that I had a sheet of paper with our Jamaican phone number and address printed out – maybe that would be more convincing. I handed the sheet to the young Jamaican woman, and as she glossed over it, she began to laugh and show it to the worker next to her. I had forgotten that on that same piece of paper was a blow-by-blow list of tips to get by immigration, rife with all the “right things to say,” and “what you might expect.” Of course that was hilarious to them. After their laughter subsided, she stamped my passport for 90 days and said I would need to come back two weeks before it expires to get it renewed or face a steep penalty. I was through!
In the airport parking lot we met up with a representative from the car rental company who handed over the keys of a new pick-up for us to drive off in. Our first stop in town was the Mega Mart, a giant store reminiscent of Costco. I, however, did not get to go inside, and had to stay with the pick-up to guard our bags in the back. Not knowing exactly what I was guarding against, I stood stoically behind the truck, switching around occasionally to sit on the back hatch. To pass the time, I nonchalantly watched the bird life around me. Glossy ibis lifted up from the wet grasses across the street, and a pair of mockingbirds danced across the lawn, throwing shadows over insects before they pounced. My attention was drawn to the cars that passed by me in the parking lot – hosting a wide variety of people, all of them either gawking, glaring, or avoiding me. Horrific dramas of assault and murder began to play out in my mind. What a shameful way it would be to go out!
Well, of course nothing happened, and as we continued onward, I learned from Ashley that we would be driving about an hour or so into the hills to where we would be staying, in an old estate of a British family that rarely visits anymore. The road that wound up into the mountains and away from tourist-land was sinuous, narrow, and full of potholes, and when combined with the left-side-of-the-road driving, quite harrowing. We passed through the towns of Anchovy and Rat Trap, where trash blew down the sidewalks and matchstick houses with zinc roofs blurred by.
Ashley’s informative words flowed fluidly into and out of my consciousness – The Jamaican government is bankrupt, they are trying to develop every undeveloped area left in the county - Nowhere is safe - They don’t give a shit about the land – it went on. I lost track of the words, and stared back out the window at the shoulder of the road, where a man and his two sons stood urinating, their backs turned to us. Wow. Ashley then told a story of a kid who once approached her and asked if she wanted to see a boa. Since the Jamaican Boa is an endangered species and rarely encountered, she eagerly asked the kid to lead her to it. There it was. In the chicken coop! Later she learned that they traded the boa so that the kids could get shoes. What can you say to that? We all agreed. Nothing.
Our journey towards Kew Park continued, and I focused again on the scenes passing by. The feeling of being in a 3rd world country started to come back to me, as I smelled the smell of exhaust fumes, burning trash combined with lush green vegetation, foreign signs and foreign faces. We pulled over to a plywood front with “corner jerk” scrawled on it. It was a small shop selling jerk chicken and jerk pork, and as Ashley ran in to grab us some, I watched a young boy wearing a red shirt and athletic shorts walking up the street, kicking a ball. As he launched the ball up the road, he made a gun with his hand and fired three shots into the sky before he ran around the corner and out of sight.
At last we pulled onto the dirt track that would take us to our house where we’d be staying the first few nights, while other researchers cleared out of the main house. It was an old, fortress turned cottage, with slots in the wall for firing weapons out of, and a tower that would fit right into medieval times. I took a moment to sit down. I could here music from Betheltown far below us. Mystikal, Notorious BIG, and Ghetto Superstar played in succession. My favorite music! Where was that music coming from, and what sort of people were down there? I sat back and closed my eyes and slowly but surely, my brain started to tackle my new home. Jamaica.
So... STAY TUNED. Many more posts to come.. hopefully once a week or so. And, maybe you are wondering why I am wearing duct tape on my ankles in that photo. Well, tune in later and you'll find out. IT'S A SCARY REASON. Wowza!