The Petchary just sat through another session of local television news, an evening ritual. There was the usual selection of politicians posturing. There were what my father used to call “hard luck stories.” Roads that have been torn away, or resembling those weird obstacle games devised by the Japanese where you are likely to fall into a deep pit of mud or plastic; a building that has partially collapsed, leaving a family exposed to the elements; market vendors complaining (as they do with regularity) about their fees going up, or lack of toilets, or the hated “farmers markets” – on the latter the Petchary would say, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
And of course, there is the usual sprinkling of sordid crime stories: a distant camera shot of a huddled body, in the dark and the rain, beyond the yellow police tape; bundles of marijuana, packaged with tender loving care, in the back of a police pick-up; a housing estate where thieves rampage after dark.
Two of the stories of everyday troubles struck the Petchary as interesting this evening, because they both involve what the journalists love to call the “precious commodity” – water.
Firstly, a cemetery that has run out of space. But that is only part of the problem. Now that a new area has been cleared to make way for more dead Jamaicans, it has turned into a positive quagmire, littered with (for some reason) bits of old plank and the ubiquitous plastic bottles. The cemetery’s caretaker, a gentleman who unfortunately had not seen a dentist in quite a while, tried to wax philosophical about heaven and hell (I lost the drift) and in the end threw up his hands, saying he is just a worker there. The water, apparently, flows from another area whenever it rains (close ups of mini-waterfalls flowing into the mire). One imagines the corpses would at some point take off and float gently down the slope. Needless to say, the place is neglected, with rampant vines and bushes embracing the elaborate graves. But the water… The caretaker shrugs his bony shoulders.
Another watery tale of woe followed. This time, it was market vendors (yes, complaining again) in a craft market – all brightly painted and pretty, but leaking like a sieve. Every time it rains (a lot of hard luck stories begin with this phrase) the roofs drip with determination on the vendors’ over-packed stalls. Shopping baskets with donkey motifs, clothing with lurid sunset-and-palm-tree designs, garish paintings of sultry Jamaican girls, grinning Rastafarian wood carvings – all get dripped on. The vendors (all women) hold up their hands, palms upward in that traditional Jamaican gesture of despair, as rain pours off and through the roofs. The roof want fix.
Of course, the journalists dutifully went off and consulted with what Jamaicans love to call “the relevant authorities” (in this case, the Mayors of May Pen and Montego Bay, respectively). Steps would indeed be taken to fix these irritating, small problems that fill the newscasts, literally, to overflowing every night. All these small problems are like tiny streams and rivulets that join the larger flow of a small river, which eventually flows into the huge, unmanageable ocean. And there all the little problems swirl around, joining the swelling tide – one big problem that overwhelms us all.
It strikes me that almost every night there is a water story. Polluted water (fish kills, garbage clogging gullies, and the like); too little water (angry rural Jamaicans with placards demonstrating in a beautiful, green, waterless valley); too much water (overloaded systems causing brown water to burst from household pipes).
And of course, the rain. And the rain. And the hurricane season is here, so we can expect more and more watery tales, until we are all bobbing about with the water lapping at our ears, and talking about building an ark like Noah. It’s all about global warming (NO, one must call it climate change nowadays) – but it’s also about the unequal distribution of the stuff, and the poor management of it. While the good citizens of Mandeville have been struggling with water shortages for years, little boys play happily (and often dangerously) in overflowing drainage ditches and deep pools. The industrious farmers of St. Elizabeth watch their delicious water melons wilt in the fields, while residents of a housing scheme built in the wrong place paddle their way to and from their homes. The rich wallow in their jacuzzis, and the poor go down to the river to bathe and wash their clothes. It’s all out of balance.
“Water water, everywhere/And all the boards did shrink/Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.”
Perhaps that’s how we will all end up, sailing on and on in our rickety, leaking craft.
As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean.