I’d rather be in the Caribbean.
“Let’s see what happens, eh?”
That’s what the weatherman said after laying out his predictions for a bone-chilling winter storm headed our way this weekend. Coincidentally, it’s the same phrase the reverend used after I kissed the bride at my wedding in Jamaica, which is where I go – mentally, if not physically – when I need to warm up. Come back to Jamaica with me, if you like, and along the way perhaps I can dispel a few misconceptions about the island.
While the people back home in Connecticut shoveled out of a killer blizzard, here’s what did happen that January day: my Jamaican wife Ingrid and I walked off the beach past a huge, thatched-roof bar named Boonoonoonoos, got a cup of Wray & Nephew Overproof rum on ice, strolled across a wooden rope bridge spanning a dazzling, waterfall-themed swimming pool, and posed for some pictures in a gazebo by the sea before blissfully partying the night away to reggae riddims.
My thoughts always turn to the “The Yard,” as Jamaica is sometimes called, on my anniversary. I seem to get older and colder with each New England winter. It’s frickin’ freezing in here, Mr. Bigglesworth. My editor is going to have a hell of a time with this article, which I am writing with mittens on. Reggae artist Johnny Osbourne knew what he meant when he said “love in the winter should be as warm as the summer sun.”
Imagining myself at the resort where I got married would be easier from a tanning bed, but for a dermatologically friendly solution, I turn to my wife for inspiration. A combination of spicy Jamaican food and the pulsating dancehall beats she favors usually get the blood flowing in my extremities, but there’s no better way to start than with the warming, soothing sounds of the unofficial Jamaican language, patois (pronounced PAH-twah). In the time I’ve known Ingrid, I’ve had the opportunity to learn many phrases, but patois is challenging for a guy who grew up in suburban Connecticut (pronounced lily-white).
Though there is some French influence, patois has been described as “broken English,” most likely by people who didn’t understand the language and therefore felt the need to denigrate it. I’ve done some research on patois, and I’ve discovered that it’s easier to learn the language itself than to understand its linguistic origins. Suffice it to say that like reggae, patois is characterized by lilting rhythms and an almost musical flow of conversation. I can only manage to speak “broken patois” – Zamaican, if you will. You will? You’ve made me so happy.
One reason learning patois has been so difficult for me – aside from possessing the Caucasian DNA strand that also renders me incapable of doing the robot or choosing fashionable clothes – is that other than the occasional tourist pamphlet, it’s almost impossible to find written instruction that isn’t on a T-shirt featuring a cartoon Rastafarian.
This is a good place to debunk a few myths for readers who have never been to the islands, because nobody likes their myths bunked. I’ll dispense with the most common Hollywood stereotypes and replace them with Zam stereotypes, albeit ones developed out of my great love the Jamaican people. For genuine facts, please consult the nearest Jamaican or locate a writer with even a hint of journalistic integrity. [Editor’s Note: These are usually the writers without mittens.]
Myth #1: All Jamaicans are Rastafarians. I know hundreds of Jamaicans, but I don’t think I’ve even met a Rastafarian. Rasta is a religion with stringent dietary restrictions against processed foods. Chances are that if you’ve met someone in America who claims to be Rasta, they’ve perfected the pot smoking, but the dietary restrictions are out the window as soon as the munchies kick in within the Domino’s Pizza delivery radius.
Myth #2: All Jamaican Music is by Bob Marley. This is an understandable misconception, given that the supposedly deceased “Tuff Gong” mysteriously seems to come out with a new album every year, and even more surprisingly, a new child. To name a few, his musical offspring include Ziggy, Cedella, Stephen, Damian, Ky-Mani and, um…Shemp. Outside of the Marleys, a great number of modern reggae tunes are remakes of other songs. For instance, Sean Kingston’s two recent hits are repackagings of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker,” which interestingly enough, is a pun on the word “Jamaica.” There are x amount (a countless supply) of other songs that are more appropriately characterized as dancehall or slackness. This genre, lesser known by most Americans, is devoted almost entirely to – how shall I put this? – wukin’, slammin’, slappin’, jooking, cocking it up, cabin stabbin’…i.e., sex. Ironically, the word screwface has nothing to do with sex.
Myth #3: All Jamaicans Have Dreadlocks Under a Red, Yellow and Green Hat. False. Sometimes the hat, known as a tam, is all one color, like when they’re on a job interview. Seriously, dreads are also largely associated with Rastafarianism, and they’re difficult to manage, so most people don’t have them. Most of the tams are simply loaded with a felony amount of ganja. This facetious point leads me to…
Myth #4: All Jamaicans Smoke Ganja. Not if they want to stay out of prison. Marijuana is universally celebrated in reggae music, but it’s just as illegal there as it is here. Dreadlocks serve the dual purpose of softening the blow when the Babylon (police) brain you with their nightsticks.
Myth #5: All Jamaicans Drive Taxis. Despite the requisite appearance of “Wacky Rasta Cabbie” in every screwball Hollywood comedy, this is not true. If you’ve ever taken a taxi in a busy city like New York, you know that the cab drivers weave dangerously in and out of traffic, driving over sidewalks and pedestrians at breakneck speed. Jamaican drivers, by comparison, are fucking crazy. The island follows English customs, so the popular warning is “The left side is the right side and the right side is suicide.” Curiously, most roads are only wide enough to have one side. You may have heard that you should pass the dutchie (cooking pot) or koutchie (hash pipe) pon de left-hand side, but never, ever, pass a tour bus on the left or you’ll end up stuck in a grill. No, not in Negril – a western Jamaican city – in A grill – on the front of somebody’s car. The second most important traffic rule in Jamaica is that goats have the right of way. On a related note, when preparing curried goat, the meat should be tender, so cook it in the dutchie, not in a grill.
Myth #6: All Jamaicans Have Nine Jobs. This stereotype was popularized on the show In Living Color. Most of the Jamaicans I’ve met are extremely hard working, but on average they only have seven jobs. The statistics were primarily skewed by my wife’s brother and sister, who together held 38 percent of all American jobs between 1988 and 2005. The trick was to remember where they were employed that week and show up for the 10 percent discount. Now my brother-in-law is in the Army, and you may scoff, “one measly job?” However, he does more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. ‘im be all dat him cyaan be!
My theory about multi-job Jamaicans is that this is the result of the phrase “I and I,” which is frequently used by Rastafarians in place of “me” or “I.” Depending on how thoroughly you research the phrase – I personally extended my search all the way to the third entry of the Google results – “I and I” refers to the oneness between an individual and Jah (God); or it invokes a person’s physical and spiritual duality. My hypothesis is that some Rasta unwittingly filled out a job application with the phrase “I and I can drive a forklift and plant corn,” at which point the hiring manager, thinking “I and I” was two people, gave him both jobs. The rest is history.
Myth #7: Jamaicans Use the Terms “Hey mon,” “Irie,” and “Cool runnings” in every sentence. You can thank the Jamaican tourist industry for this fallacy. The locals are smart enough to know that if they repeat these phrases ad nauseum, American tourist shoppers coming off the cruise ships will eat it up like a nice plate of mackerel rundown. If you really want to learn patois, here are a few tips from my own experience.
First, repeat funny sounding words, like fenky fenky or chaka chaka. Next, pepper your conversations with incomprehensible proverbs, like “He who eats too many plantain at breakfast will feel the spider’s bite in the bush.” Extra points if you work a hungry dog into the saying. Finally, take the H’s hout hof words that ‘ave them, hand put them hin front hof words that don’t ‘ave them. Hunderstand?
Since we signed our marriage certificate, Hingrid – that’s “Ingrid” with the hextra haitch – and I have logged approximately 3,650 nights, not all of them blissful. But like the famously fleeting Caribbean showers, most of our rainfalls have ended as soon as they began, leaving everything a little healthier in the aftermath. When you live with a West Indian, you have to prepare for the occasional hurricane, and like any relationship, we’ve had those too. You just have to be smart enough to board the windows up and stand under an archway until the argument blows over.
What I wouldn’t give for a warm Jamaican breeze right now. It’s 13 degrees outside and I’m having difficult getting my frozen face, which could stop a bullet, relaxed enough to speak patois. In fact, I’m having trouble typing the word patois. I’m not sure if it’s the mittens or frostbite, but it keeps coming out as “patios.” I probably should stop before I go off on a tangent about lawn chairs. Did I mention I met my wife at a furniture store?