I have been on a fairly long hiatus; my brother and his wife were visiting over the holidays from Australia. As often happens, we were acting as willing and enthusiastic tour guides/consultants during their stay.
It’s always a delight having visitors. We wanted to show our guests all our favourite Jamaican places, and to explore some new ones. We have noted before that, after a few days, we also started seeing the country we live in through their eyes. Things we take for granted are surprising to them. Often, the annoyances and sometimes dull routines of our everyday lives are amusing and interesting to them.
The experience was memorable, with many photographs shared among us. It was my brother’s first visit here. They really enjoyed their stay. It was relaxed, laid-back and they loved the country and people. We stayed in the hills of St. Ann, where huge guango trees dripped with rain and the sunsets were lovely. We did a little beach-hopping and quite a bit of people-watching. We had a lively Christmas dinner at home with friends. We stayed in the Blue Mountains and walked in the mist. We had an extraordinary boat trip around Goat Islands and the Portland Bight Protected Area with the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation. They paid an emotional visit to the Bob Marley Museum. We toured National Heroes Park, filled with butterflies. And much more…
Amidst all the enjoyment, however, our visitors repeatedly mentioned the garbage. They pointed it out to us in various spots where we might have ignored or overlooked its ugliness – not only in downtown Kingston, where unfortunately it has become a part of the landscape, but in various parts of the island. Tipped down gullies, piled in corners, lurking on beaches, overflowing from uncollected bins, with dogs and goats digging around in it. We began thinking to ourselves that we were ourselves becoming immune to the sight of garbage. We see it and then look away.
Well, let me tell you something: Visitors hate garbage. We can talk about “sustainable tourism” all we like, but solid waste (and plastic in particular) is an issue we have got to get a handle on – and now. Not next year – this year. Great programmes like Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica (supported by the Tourism Enhancement Fund and Wisynco) have had some impact, but a concerted effort by citizens, businesses, NGOs and government agencies is needed.
We were driving down Deanery Road yesterday, behind a “robot taxi.” It stopped every minute or two to pick up passengers, and was overloaded. To add to the picture of “couldn’t care less” indiscipline, at least two of its passengers threw trash from the window in the space of a few minutes.
We were actually headed down to Elletson Road, to spend some time with a group of Jewish volunteers from overseas (many with Jamaican roots) who have been working for some time to catalogue cemeteries across the island. The cemetery where they were working had been clogged with garbage on previous occasions, but efforts had been made this time to sweep it up into large piles. However, it was still there. I spoke with one of the volunteers, a U.S.-based conservator with considerable expertise; we talked about the possibility of heritage tourism and the Jewish cemeteries being included in Kingston’s heritage tour routes. They are rich in history and considerable beauty, with amazing craftsmanship and stonework. They also tell touching human stories. They would have great appeal for history buffs and Jamaicans looking for ancestors.
The group had cleaned up and put back together a nineteenth century grave that was touching in its simplicity and the sadness of the story it told: that of two little brothers, who died within a few weeks of each other. “Our dear boys.” The problem, the conservator told me quite bluntly, was not the damage that had been done to many of the graves through sheer neglect, and in some cases, vandalism. Weather (and with climate change, more extremes, heavy rains and so on) will take its toll. Visitors would not expect such historical sites, even when refurbished, to be perfect.
No, it was the garbage. That would be the “turn off” for them.
“The garbage must go,” she said firmly.
As I have noted before on this blog and on social media, on our own “nice” street in a “nice” residential area of Kingston, we suffer from garbage scattered along the roadside. Styrofoam soup and “box lunch” containers. Plastic bags, often containing household waste. Plastic bottles (of course). Fast food boxes. These are dumped and/or thrown out of the windows of passing cars. Taxi drivers are largely to blame, but not entirely so; I have seen trash thrown from the windows of big shiny SUVs. At least once a week, someone from nearby homes has to go out and pick it all up.
Look, when are we going to get these things right? Please, do not tell us that it is “unhelpful” to post pictures of garbage dumps on social media. Personally, I think we should do more of it. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We need to draw attention to it.
The thing is, to someone from “outside,” garbage scattered in an area shows that people (and the authorities) simply do not care. It’s a mindset. This lack of pride in our surroundings will always strike visitors forcibly, and immediately. However, I must add – this issue is, first and foremost, for ourselves, here in Jamaica.
Footnote: Ironically, my brother had a great laugh one day. We were in traffic and stopped behind a garbage truck. A garbage collector “kotched” on the back, headphones on his ears, listening to what was possibly a dancehall tune on his phone. From time to time, he tried out some dance moves (without actually falling off). He also wielded a large spliff, which he sucked on from time to time. He was in his own world. (Sorry, NSWMA! Not at all the way your employees should behave, we know. His colleague was studiously ignoring him). The irony of this is that this was something our visitors took lightly and with humour – something that would normally irk us. However, they took very seriously the issue of the garbage itself – something that we overlook daily…
Footnote 2: Notable exceptions to the garbage problem during my brother’s visit were the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park at Holywell (not one scrap); and National Heroes Park, where the monuments are. Thank God, Blue Mahoe trees and Marcus Garvey do not have to contend with plastic.