Jamaicans love their beaches. Like many human beings the world over, they love to do silly things like burying long-suffering friends up to their necks in sand; or running down into the sea carrying a kicking and screaming girl, and throwing her in. Jamaicans aren’t really big on sandcastles, though; I think the sand is too soft and fine. And then, of course, there was the sand that was stolen, by persons unknown, that was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not“ a few years ago. That is one of those mysteries wrapped in an enigma, as they say; although some people know the truth of it.
But at the moment, Jamaica is feeling Sandy all over. Yes, Tropical Storm-soon-to-be-Hurricane Sandy is churning its way to the south of the island. Ir’a making a bee-line for Jamaica. It’s getting late, and the rain that has pounded us steadily since morning has eased up, giving us a bit of a break before Sandy herself arrives. She is due to check in around midnight tonight, and will be fully ensconced on the island by midday tomorrow, we are told. There she is, with her sphere of influence clearly marked, in the National Hurricane Center‘s diagram below…
Now, this is the first storm that has threatened Jamaica seriously this year. It has been a quietish year for us, storm-wise. Many storms have wandered off northwards, where they generally fizzle out and “lose their tropical characteristics.” This basically means that they get a bit chilly as they wander off towards Newfoundland, and have to put on woolly jumpers over their bikinis (or “bath suits” as many Jamaicans call them). They just haven’t been able to get into the tropical, Caribbean thing. No pina coladas for the likes of Florence, Nadine, Michael, Chris… They were all up there drinking hot toddies, instead.
It’s a funny thing with tropical storms. They bring about a wide range of emotions among Jamaicans; but there is no doubt they give many of us a little adrenalin boost. Yes, these male and female climatic disturbances add a little frisson of excitement to our humdrum lives. For a start, the schoolchildren like them; it means schools are closed (as they are tomorrow). Those who are lucky enough to be working are sent home early (as happened around lunchtime today). Those who can afford it rush off to the supermarkets to stock up with candles, kerosene oil, batteries, and tins of bully beef (corned beef, if you prefer).
Ah yes, the latter has become a traditional must-have when storm clouds gather. It doesn’t go off, so you can eat it when your fridge has warmed up during long power cuts. I must admit that, ever since the serious horror that was Hurricane Gilbert (1988) – a direct hit on Jamaica – I have been unable to stomach that slippery, salty chunk of meat that you prise out of the tin. We ate tons of it in 1988, with rice. It gives me a heavy feeling in my stomach just to think of it. Hurricane Gilbert was, among other things, a serious case of chronic indigestion for me.
At about two o’clock this afternoon the mood of uptown Kingston (and, I am sure, elsewhere) dramatically changed. It was as if everyone had got a shot in the arm. The traffic flying up and down our street steadily increased, developing into a kind of frantic cacophony. The tension was almost palpable. Even a police car wailed along in the pouring rain, amongst all the desperate uptowners who, freed from their workplaces, were racing up and down with checklists of things-to-do-before-the-hurricane-comes. Fill up the car with gas; buy supplies at the supermarket; buy supplies at the hardware store – there’s a little leak in the roof/window/door that needs fixing; check in with aged relatives who are fretting about howling winds tearing down their awnings; pick up happy little child from school (don’t forget); and most of all, make sure you don’t starve during the one or two days of the storm. Whatever that takes. So, of course, the supermarkets and the gas stations love tropical storms too. This year, they probably feel that Christmas has come early; a couple of chains tweeted that they are open to midnight tonight – presumably until they have nothing left to sell but expensive wines and obscure foreign foods.
There was actually a traffic jam outside our front gate for half an hour this afternoon – something that rarely, if ever happens. SUVs foaming at the mouth.
But not everyone gets into a spin about hurricanes. Other Jamaicans affect a nonchalant air. “Oh, it’s just a bit of rain,” they say. They make a big show out of not going to the supermarket, and don’t even bother listening to the radio bulletins that many of us listen to avidly, trying to read between the lines… (Is it going to turn away just a little, and miss us? If it does come, how strong are the winds going to be? How much more rain will we get? And so on). The nonchalant ones smile knowingly and adopt a know-it-all, slightly patronizing tone when commenting on the looming storm. Quite irritating, especially when they are proved right - it actually was just a bit of rain - and adopt an air of “I told you so.”
Others, of course, know everything there is to know about hurricanes. They will talk glibly with anyone who has half an hour to spare about “maximum sustained winds” and “wind shear” and the like. Yes, over the past ten years or so, many of us have become experts. Satellite imagery and projected paths are second nature to us now.
And of course, the media fraternity loves hurricanes. So much to say about them, over and over. We can never get enough hurricane preparedness tips, hurricane updates, and endless footage of inundated roads and houses perched on the edge of gullies. Worst of all, there are the tedious interviews with individuals among the herd of supermarket shoppers. When accosted by a journalist, they say riveting things like: “Well, I haven’t bought much” - camera zooms in on shopper’s trolley - “just a few necessary items…” Oof.
As for me, I happened to be in the beautiful Blue Mountains of Jamaica as Sandy started brewing. Mavis Bank in rural St. Andrew (about a 45-minute drive straight upwards from Kingston) is a magical place. Population about 2,000; elevation about 3,000 feet. Bamboos bow their heads on the hillsides; streams trickle under small bridges and sometimes across the road; pine trees march along the brow of the hills. White scarves of mist appear and disappear among the folds of the mountains. It is green; it is cool; the water tastes sweet; it is a different world altogether from the dusty city below. There is the Jablum coffee factory, which smells fragrant as you drive past. People call to each other across a valley, or from a steep slope, or from a river bed up to the roadside. Parrots and pigeons scurry over the treetops. It is beautiful.
Sadly, I did not stay longer than a day in this cool green world. As the weather appeared to deteriorate, I reluctantly left the mountains and returned to Kingston, just before the crazy uptowners were unleashed on the roads. I had planned to spend the week there, at a very interesting workshop organized by Our Tomorrows and attended by a small but enthusiastic group that included members from the Turks & Caicos Islands and Surinam.
You see, storms just don’t give me an enjoyable buzz, like the jolt of a good strong cup of coffee. For me, it’s like one cup of coffee too many. I get a little jittery. I become obsessed with every move that the storm makes. I peer out of the window at the sky. I listen to every weather bulletin until I am sick of hearing the same thing over and over. And then, there is a kind of weariness, similar to the feeling after a caffeine overdose has worn off. I become listless and watch boring television programs that I would not normally find interesting. And I don’t find them interesting. Tropical storms are a real downer.
And frankly, I don’t care for the name Sandy. No offense intended to all the very nice Sandys out there, but it conjures up a rather seedy image to me – go-go dancers or something. I do recall there was an English singer – tall and skinny – called Sandy Shaw. She sang covers of Burt Bacharach songs and didn’t wear shoes, for some reason (this was considered daring in conservative England in the sixties).
Much more amusingly, I also recall a different kind of Sandy, again from my teenage years in England. Two comedians (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) used to do a very camp radio sketch which included the catch phrase: “Hello, I’m Julian, and this is my friend Sandy.” They were gay interior decorators – at a time (the mid-sixties) when homosexuality was still illegal in England. Sandy would say things like, “Ooh, isn’t he bold?“ Marvelous stuff. You can even find it on YouTube.
Meanwhile… I am sitting down here in Kingston, somehow wishing that I was still back on that wet, dripping mountainside where the frogs cry at night and the minibuses blow their horns at every corner.
P.S. While writing this, another character has appeared on the scene - Tropical Storm Tony. But let’s not worry about him – he is, as they say, “no threat to land.”
- Tropical storm warning in Jamaica ahead of Sandy (scnow.com)
- Tropical Storm Sandy approaches hurricane status (cbsnews.com)
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7678379.stm (Jamaica puzzled by theft of beach)
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_and_Sandy (Julian and Sandy)
- http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20120320/life/life1.html (A religious experience in Mavis Bank: Jamaica Gleaner)
- http://www.bluemountaincoffee.com/index.cfm?method=AboutUs.CoffeeFactory (Mavis Bank Coffee Factory)