Set Me Up

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When I moved to Jamaica, I learned about Nine Nights- Jamaica’s funerary ritual- and the Setup, a Jamaican party during the Nine Nights after someone has died; revelers dance, drink, eat, and celebrate the life of the deceased. Unsurprisingly, after hearing all about these nights and a party Setup, I wanted to experience it, to dance to music meant to draw everyone together in a celebration of life, memory, and community.

One full moonlit night around 9 pm, we set out for a Setup. We arrived far too early, before the band had even arrived for their sound check, so we went to one of our community’s main squares to pass the time. I could hear the thump of the bass and smell the heady aroma of smoke before we saw the Barber Shop. As soon as I saw it, I remembered how the previous Peace Corps Volunteer had mentioned going there to get various designs shaved on her head. We had some time, so my next thought was, “how much?”

For your information, it costs JM$300 to get a lightning bolt shaved onto the back of your head. I know what you’re thinking and 1) Yes, I did it because of Harry Potter, 2) Yes, I am that cool, 3) Yes, I will get other designs now that I jumped through the rabbit hole, 4) Probably a dollar sign, then a heart, then who knows?, and 5) Yes, it does feel cool to pet the back of my neck. If you see me soon after posting this, feel free to touch. Actually, please do it; it’s like a mini-massage from a masseuse you actually like.

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As I sat in the chair listening to the menacing buzzing of the barber’s razor, I watched locals mouth the lyrics to the dancehall songs pumping from the adjacent bar’s radio. Every so often, they would look at me the way you look at a kale/quinoa salad you know you’ll never order: intrigued, but confused at the combination. I just smiled and thought about the encounters to be had in the two years to come, some to happen in that chair.

When we finally arrived at the Setup, hair shaved with a belly full of banana chips, the band was unpacking to do their sound check. Listening to the pianist mess around with chords as the bassist accompanied, I smiled as a mixture of jerk, smoke, and mountain air hit my nostrils. Clouds covered the sky, but as they slipped away, a full moon glowed ominously, and I felt as if werewolves could be nearby, waiting to pounce at the opportune moment.

Suddenly, the lights went out, and the band went quiet. The generator powering everything had died. A man walked a few buckets of fuel up the hill to where the generator sat, quietly awaiting its chance to get the party restarted. Diesel mixed with the jerk, smoke, and fresh night air, as my eyelids started to droop.

Though most Setups go until at least 4 a.m., at this point, I was a walking zombie. We walked back home, flashlight preventing sprained ankles along the goat path up to my new home. My first real Setup would have to wait for another night….

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Traveling to a foreign country, you hope to somehow capture its essence in your time there; eating a croissant with chocolat chaud at a Parisian café, you hope to channel Hemingway as you write about nostalgia. Moving to a foreign country, you hope to not only grasp the heart and soul of its culture, but to become part of its fabric as well, laughing at jokes only locals would understand, and walking with the same rhythm and savoir faire.

Though I had waited impatiently to dance and celebrate at the Setup, I realized my energy was misguided. As Jamaicans remind me ceaselessly, tiek taim!* Not everything you want will happen when you want, as you want. When I think of my first Setup, I won’t remember how I didn’t hear the band play or see people dance; I’ll smile at the pokey down of my freshly buzzed hair, and the spooky, shining orb on a cloudy night. I’ll think of how impatient I was to experience genuine Jamaican culture, not realizing I was already in the thick of it. Suh it guh!**

*Take time
**So it goes, c’est la vie

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