Weh ya seh?

Back to Africa Miss Matty?
Yuh noh know wha yuh day-sey?
Yuh haffe come from some weh fus,
Before yuh go back deh?

Wat a debil of a bump-an-bore,
Rig-jig an palam-pam!
Ef de whole worl’ start fe go back
Weh dem great granpa come from!

Go a foreign, seek yuh fortune,
But noh tell nobody sey
Yuh dah-go fe seek yuh homeland
For a right deh so yuh deh!

~”Back to Africa”, Jamaica Labrish, by Louise Bennett

 

A couple of years ago, at a family reunion, I told my aunt that my brother saw the world through music, and I saw it through words. I have since moved frum faarin to Jamaica, where every day, I find that new words open up new ways of thinking. Continue reading

Falling into Rhythm

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Running pon di road

Each time my foot pushes into the ground, propelling me further down the road, my breath comes a little bit quicker, heavier, wilder. Afterwards, I wonder how it is that I managed to bounce around the potholes, fly down the hills and trod back up them; I’m not a runner so finding my pace takes time.

When I imagined myself in the Peace Corps, I pictured an integrated me, hungry after working all day in the field with local farmers, wiping sweat from my forehead as I rubbed my clothes clean watching as other women did the same, teaching a class how to improve their crop yield with biodynamic farming. This image, one of hard work and success, ignored a necessary step: figuring out how to fit in. Continue reading

Pon di Oustop

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The Eastern View, Blue Mountains

Around dusk at my new home, I climb pon di oustop* to see Kingston turn on her lights as the dimming sun shoots pink, purple, and peach across the sky. Kingston begins to sparkle like a diamond that catches the sun’s rays and refracts them to all eyes watching, reminding me of colder nights spent crick-necked with crêpe in hand as I stared up at the Eiffel Tower glittering in the City of Lights.

It’s a funny thing, to be reminded of the past by a shimmer, a passing breeze, or a scent. But what is a human if not an amalgamation of senses, emotions, and reflections? Continue reading

Jamaican Lessons I

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Sunset in Portland

People say you learn something new every day, but I imagine I learn much more during this great experiment of life. My dad always says, “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,” to which I always reply, “Guess it doesn’t really matter then, does it?” What I do remember from what I’ve learned pon dis rok, though, I’d like to share; I find it stunning how differently we humans live our lives, yet all still smile at a pink streaked sunset, laugh when our 86 year old Grandma farts, and cry in the security lane of an airport’s Departures terminal, glancing back to see our Mom crying too.

And so begins my first installment of Jamaican Lessons… Continue reading

How to Order the Perfect Cone

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Me eating ice cream at Devon House, Jamaica

I walk into an ice cream shop with two thoughts: 1) What scoop pairs well with chocolate? 2) Do they have waffle cones? At some point in my 27 years, I’ve become a fastidious ice cream eater. I can’t pinpoint when this happened, but I can rationalize it. Better yet, by the time I’m finished, you may never order ice cream the same way again. Here, then, are the Cash Rules for Ordering and Eating Ice Cream (yes, they’re more like guidelines).

  1. I always order two flavors, and one of them is almost always chocolate. If you don’t like chocolate, skip to step two- this step is not for you.

    Chocolate goes well with almost all other ice cream flavors. Vanilla? Duh. Blood orange? A combination I salivate over like a Pavlovian dog when memories of cobblestone and cranberry colored citrus creep into my cranium. Cinnamon? Never question the power that cinnamon and chocolate combined wield.

    The fact remains, ice cream flavors are a reflection of what we eat for desserts, so you won’t find kale and quinoa ice cream stocked at your local creamery. Furthermore, chocolate is one of the most common dessert ingredients, and clearly the best. What else can take a frozen banana from “why?” to “why do I not eat this every night?” What other food comes from a magical plant that offers antioxidants, instant pleasure, and the release of dopamine into the bloodsteam, scientifically proving its toe-curling, eye-closing, beyond-articulated-speech powers?

  2. So I’ve ordered my scoop of chocolate. You may think two flavors is overkill, but if you’re already getting chocolate (and if you’re not, go back and reread step one), you need to get an exploratory flavor. Maybe you’re in Bali, and they have dragon fruit ice cream, and you don’t think you could get that elsewhere. Maybe you’re really in the mood for citrus. Maybe you have no idea of what you want. Since we already know it will taste good with chocolate, think about what flavors you’re in the mood for, what’s common and/or tasty locally, and what the shop specializes in. Triangulate your flavor mood with local offerings and store specialties, and you’ve found your second flavor!
  3. Order waffle cone, if available. It’s less shitty-sugar tasting and has a snappier bite-crunch than sugar cones. Who cares if it costs more? You’re already spending more than one would want on flavored frozen cow’s breast milk.

    Also, if you’re thinking of ordering a bowl, just don’t. Ice cream is a dessert for the mature, for the young, and all ages in between. You don’t need to use a spoon just to showcase your refined motor skills. Real ice cream eaters order a cone. Forget the bowl, embrace the cone! (If traveling in a vehicle, this becomes more acceptable, as ice cream in your lap is worse than ice cream in a bowl.)

  4. LICK, don’t bite! I’ll never understand why some people bite their ice cream instead of licking it. When I lick it, each flavor spreads across my tongue, sweeping from the sweet buds to the tangy; I slowly embrace the creamy, cold concoction cooling my tongue. If you bite, you get ice cream all over your face, feel stabbing waves of icy pain in your teeth, and most sadly, the ice cream is gone more quickly. So lick!
  5. Enjoy! You’ve come a long way, so savor the most flavor diverse dessert in the world!

As a treat, I leave you with the most unforgettable cones I’ve licked and lapped to completion. Sweet dreams truly are made of these:

  • Blood orange and dark chocolate gelato, Chiaso, Italy
  • Cinnamon OR dragon fruit, Ubud, Bali (but NOT together; order with chocolate! My mouth was a little too fiery after eating a cinnamon/dragon fruit combo…)
  • Any creamy goodness, with chocolate, from Annapolis Ice Cream Company, Annapolis, Maryland. I’ve had the opportunity to try their cones many a time so maybe it’s local pride, but honestly, this shit is goooood.
  • Rum raisin or Devon Stout, Devon House, Kingston, Jamaica. Jamaican alcohol + Ice cream = DUH. Order it.
  • Absolutely any flavors you come across in Sicily. I am not exaggerating when I say most days I spent there involved two trips to a gelato shop, sometimes three. There’s a reason for it. Go, eat, and conquer!

Kumina Heartbeat

A nearly obscured candle flickered with hope beside a drum on which a man sat, beating out life’s pulse- thuuh-dum, thuuh-dum, thuuh-dum- as I swayed hypnotically to its charm. The musicians moved with this heartbeat of Kumina music; men and women were drumming drums, grating graters, and shaking shakers, while a surrounding ring of chanters called out for the deceased. Through this ceremony to help the dead pass on, life called out its beating pulse.

My host mom told me Jamaicans generally don’t talk about going to Kumina, the above described music and dance ceremony for someone who has just died. Some church members might call it heterodoxy, or even evil. Many people also associate Kumina with Obeah, which is often classified as Jamaica’s version of Voodoo. In the country with the most churches per square mile, this threat of rejection is real.

The Kumina I attended was in the parish of St Thomas, where these traditions hold steadfast. Because of its remoteness, Jamaican Christians were able to maintain and incorporate many of their African rituals into their Christian practice. “‘Kumina comes out of the Angola region- West Central Africa- and it’s survived in St Thomas as a largely African ceremony, one where the ancestral dead have the power to influence us beyond the grave.’“ (Ian Thomson, The Dead Yard)

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Drummers, shakers, graters, and dancers at Kumina

During the ceremony, when the drummers beat their goatskin Kumina drums, they are calling to the ancestors of the person passing from our physical world to the spiritual realm. The Kumina rhythms are the language of the dead, and are used to transport spirits to here and now, specifically to help pass the spirit of the deceased to the next world. People sometimes become possessed by these ancestor spirits during Kumina. I didn’t witness this, but I believe possession takes many forms.

I watched as men splashed rum on their faces, drums, hair, even each other (in addition to drinking it with Pepsi). They focused on the beat, their togetherness, and their purpose; they were never once out of sync. I felt as if they played inside a snow globe, oblivious to the watchers and voyeurs surrounding them. I found myself swaying to the Kumina heartbeat, hitting each beat with the swish of my skirt.

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The road to Port Morant

After dancing, swaying, chatting, chanting, and looking by candlelight at shadowy figures on drums and shakers, we sped and bumped back to Port Morant to our homes and quiet streets. Dodging another pothole, the Kumina drum’s heartbeat pulsed in my head. I felt the urge to live mindfully, expansively, present, like a wide-eyed child seeing snow for the first time, stretching out her tongue to test its icy softness.

Who could have guessed a party for the dead would be so full of life?

Starry Night

I wonder what Van Gogh would have thought about seeing his Starry Night on the insides of umbrellas, twinkling on the wall above college frat parties, and hidden underneath plates at dinner. Would he have picked that painting to canvas the world?

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Van Gogh’s The Starry Night

Standing in front of said masterpiece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I walked as close as possible to the painting, looking at the meaty, brusque brushstrokes, wavy trees and sky, and fairy tale village cradled in the hills below. The many blues calmed me as the yellow stars popped out, a macaroni and cheese colored moon promising serenity and hope.

The little village, nestled beneath the light-filled expanse of night sky, captured my attention. What were the villagers doing? Had this always been their home? How did they know that it was the right home for them?

A few years later…

I arrived in Port Morant, Jamaica last Sunday. My host mom, Herma told me they were going out to Morant Bay and Seaforth; would I like to join?

On the pot hole filled, narrow road, cars and trucks zoomed toward us, letting us know of their presence just around the corner with many a loud, “HOOOONK!” There weren’t any seat belts in the back seat- I think I checked five or six times- instead, I maintained a death grip on the passenger door handle.

As we sped down the road, I stretched my head and neck out the window, observing the fading outlines of mountains, a twilight beach and a purple-streaked sky.

On the way back, I chanced another peek. As I craned my neck upwards, more constellations filled Jamaica’s sky than I had seen in months. I ducked my head back in as a truck passed, only to stick it out again, and again.

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Port Morant, Jamaica

Something about that sky seemed to simultaneously comfort and encourage, as if you could lay in the grass looking up at it, sharing stories about the past and hopes for the future with a loved one, knowing that everything would turn out OK.

I felt the prickly sensation of déjà vu on the back of my neck as I pictured myself at the MOMA in front of Van Gogh’s star-filled night. That oil painted canvas elicited feelings of home and warm fuzziness.  As I gazed up at Jamaica’s night sky, my eyes began to water and I realized how the villagers of Van Gogh’s tiny town felt, how something as ordinary as stars could make you feel that finally you found home.

What does the Food Say?

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Here’s to you, birdie

Midnight blue curtains tickle my arm as the early morning breeze blows in. The curtain’s silver sequined flowers sparkle iridescently as they catch the predawn glow, coaxing my eyes to break their fast.

I walk into the living room, where I hear the sizzling, spitting, sputter of the fry pan announcing breakfast. Minutes later, I smell fried dumplings, a softly sweet aroma that puts to mind N’awlins, beignets, and powdered sugar down my front.

My host mom sets my plate before me. I savor the stir-fry of pepper, onions, and seasoning, then cut into the smooth plantains. The banana-like fruit tastes like it’s been dipped in maple syrup, then fried in Heaven. I close my eyes and enjoy that honeyed bite, my rapture catalyzed knowing the sweetness is innate.

As I walk to training, I begin to sweat. I feel as if I’m in a sauna, but wearing too many clothes for the health benefits to kick in. Once I climb the stairs to our veranda training grounds, the sea breeze whips and stirs my hair into Medusa-like frenzy.

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SPLASH

When I get home, I feel like someone tried to cram the contents of Moby Dick and War and Peace into my bleary eyed brain. Then, I smell pumpkin cooking in the kitchen. Something else mixes with the summer squash- I later learn it’s pimento.

At the table, my host mom, joined by her mother and daughter, talks of cinnamon chocolate tea, ginger, sorrel root (it makes good beer), ackee, naseberries, June plums, at least four kinds of mangoes, star apple, and an aptly named fruit called stinky toe cheese. Her arms waving, and brow sweating as my host mom tells me of another foreign fruit, I imagine trying all these foods and drinks, stinky toe cheese included.

Watching three generations of women talk over each other in a rush to discuss the past and present of Jamaica’s fruits and food exotica, I realize all my conversations include food. I remember learning to love wine in France, always asking my host mom and dad for “un petit peu” more, making cheese over cow paddy fueled fires in Mongolia, and sharing baked macaroni and cheese with my ostrich farm family in Bulgaria. Now I sit at a table talking about a future filled with stinky toe cheese and ginger.

Coming together over food is not an esoteric cultural rite. Something about seeing people close their eyes and “mmmmm” while chewing food I have prepared sends warm flutters through my body. Sipping my host mom’s Jamaican Saturday soup, I feel grateful that someone includes me in their culture, and wants me to understand it. Since before Proust bit into his madeleine, humanity has embraced the nostalgic, intimate, historical stories food tells, for through them, we begin to understand the people behind the food.

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I’m glad my camera made this mistake, but I wish I knew how to recreate it!

How to Eat Chicken Foot

  1. Fly (or boat, or swim) to Jamaica

    Flying to Jamaica Photo Credit Stephen

    Flying to Jamaica
    Photo Credit Stephen

  2. Find a family to take you in until at least Saturday.
  3. Wait until Saturday Soup Day.
  4. On Saturday, your host family will make you soup, because Saturday is Soup Day, a day on which Jamaicans let a pot of soup simmer for hours. Make sure you ask for chicken foot in the soup.
  5. Don’t stare at the ominously puckered chicken foot as your soup is set before you. Picturing Chicken-You-One-Chased won’t help either.
  6. Eat the chicken neck if it’s there. You’ll know it’s a neck because it looks like a neck. It’s meaty goodness!

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

  7. Do glance at your host family as they eat the chicken foot. They will most likely spoon the foot up to mouth level, from where they will take their fingers, pinch the foot at its widest part, and bite off all three toes in one chomp.
  8. Do what they just did. Bite off the three toes.
  9. Repeat with the part of the chicken foot you pinched. Don’t eat the bone, but the cartilage is edible.
  10. Enjoy eating food some would not deem worthy of the word.
  11. Thank your host family!
  12. Help with the dishes, remembering to ask how to correctly wash dishes in Jamaica so you have content for your next blog post 😉