We’ve been told Kingston is a city of two halves, and never the twain shall meet. Our hotel, and H’s (my husband’s) job, is in New Kingston; very much Uptown, the smarter, business-end of the city. Lots of expats seldom venture Downtown, as it has a reputation for street theft, poverty and no go areas such as Trenchtown and Tivoli Gardens, but it’s the older part of the city, and many of the best Museums, the Waterfront and the famous Coronation Market are all there. So on Saturday morning, slightly in revenge for H staying out drinking on Friday night, I suggested a trip Downtown. Cheerfully singing my own words to Petula Clark’s 60’s song:
When you’re hungover and haven’t got enough worries
You can always go, Downtown.
When you’re a bit sketchy, all the crowds and the hurry
Will make it worse, I know, Downtown.
Listen to the boom boxes in the rough part of the city
Don’t linger on the sidewalk,
Getting macheted won’t be pretty.
How can you lose?
The thieves are much brighter there,
You can double your worries,
Add to your cares and go…
Downtown, you’ll probably get mugged when you’re,
Downtown, no scarier place for sure,
Downtown, paranoia is waiting for you.
We were picked up from our hotel by the friendly taxi driver who we’ve kind of adopted as our driver. He gave us a little tour of Downtown first to help us get our bearings, and then dropped us off, right in the heart of Coronation Market. His only advice was to keep moving and smiling! So that we did.
We walked straight into the market (well I did, H followed at a kind of stoop as the whole place is covered by sagging tarpaulins about foot lower than him!) We followed dirt tracks between hundreds of stalls overflowing with yams and all kinds of unknown fruits, heaps of clothes, all manner of gold, glittering flip-flops, cleaning products, not pausing too long anywhere apart from to dodge hand-carts being wheeled at shin height throw the pulsating crowd. If I’d been feeling really mean, would have made H dive into one of the great piles of ladies underwear then haggle over a bra for me, but shaky and sweating as he was, I relented.
While we both felt enormously self-conscious, the only white faces amongst thousands of Jamaicans, but people mainly ignored us. Perhaps I don’t look like too much of a serious yam buyer yet! One lady called out ‘Jack Fruit for da baby!’ but the fruit she was holding was about the size of a baby (but a whole lot spikier, one can only pray) and anyway, I wouldn’t have a clue with what to do with one! Another lady gave my belly a bit of stroking; I thought it was Ed until I turned to smile at him and she beamed at me and said “Dat’s a boy!” (Why does everybody in Jamaica think that?) There were some amazing spice stalls, with unlabeled bags of brightly coloured powders and dried peas laid out under the sun (watch this space for some massive culinary disasters!) and finally, and rather surprisingly, a pirated porn DVD stand with outrageous titles splashed across their sun-bleached photocopied covers.
Because of our instruction to ‘keep moving’, we shamefully bought nothing. We emerged out the other side of the market, feeling relieved, and H finally able to stand up straight, onto an even busier shopping street. This was jammed with more hawkers, shoppers, with boom boxes pumping out dancehall bass lines, and a guy rapping with a mike; weirdly incongruous next to ladies selling loo-roll and dusters! At KFC, a gang of youngsters were dancing – or rather wine’n and grindin’ dancehall style in the open foyer! We kept moving…
We walked into Parade (Willam Grant Park) and saw a homeless man who looked spectacularly mad but friendly. He had a trolley of possessions and was wrapped in all kinds of African fabrics, with crazy dreads and huge pair of lens-less red sunglasses worn at a jaunty angle, and gave us a cheery ‘Good morning!’ but H’s tightening hand-holding overode my curiousity and kept me walking right on past him. To work out our location, and because I was melting in the noon day sun, we bought a bag of water from a handcart seller for just 10J$; about 1c! I had a seat on the disused fountain in the centre of park, and fished the Lonely Planet guide out of my shopping bag. H kept watch out while I had a surreptitious (but blindingly obvious) look at the map, to work out where to go next.
We walked down King Street past some sadly destitute beggars towards the National Institute of Jamaica where I was hoping to see the Obeah Exhibition. Obeah (the Jamaican form of Voodoo) is practiced here, but illegal, and with my fascination with all things witchy, I was looking forward to finding out more about it. Just minutes from the busy buzz of the market we suddenly found ourselves on the completely deserted streets in the weirdly flat white light of the noon day sun. We felt very nervous indeed as we walked between closed office-buildings and banks, occasional ruined buildings and sad piles of rubbish being picked over by mangy dogs. Finally we found the Institute, disappointingly shut on a Saturday, so the next stop was the National Portrait Gallery about a 10 minute walk away.
On our way, we saw a Juici Patties. As I was feeling fairly seriously hot and pregnant we popped in to try out this famous Jamaican institution. Also it was practically empty, in comparison to the one in New Kingston which is always jointed! The patties were hot, salty and delicious, like mini Cornish pasties and the air conditioning was bliss.
Restored, we walked along Ocean Boulevard, the beautifully designed but weirdly deserted Kingston sea-front, pausing for a photo at the controversial Negro Aroused statue, then decided to keep moving as a whole gang of kids joined us and began to fan out around us in a fairly intimidating way – even if they were only about 8 years old, barely dressed and armed only with one fishing rod between them!
The National Portrait Gallery was blissfully cool, and had a stunning retrospective of a prolific Jamaican artist called Barrington, Jamaica’s most famous painter, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. After a couple of hours, having literally recovered our cool, we called our taxi man to come back and get us. The taxi man laughed at us when we said we hadn’t bought anything at the market and on the way back to the hotel, pulled over at Cross Roads Market, a smaller and much more manageable affair, to give me a quick lesson in Jamaican fruits and vegetables. I bought some Star-Apples which are delicious small fruits that taste a bit like kiwis and some June plums which are quite bitter but apparently good with a sprinkle of salt! Cross Roads is the exact mid-point between Uptown and Downtown, and I feel very lucky to be on this side of the tracks.
Our Downtown adventure was over, and like so many things in Jamaica, once you’ve done something once, it doesn’t seem anything like as intimidating or dangerous as you might have thought. I fully intended to go back to Coronation Market, perhaps replacing a hung-over husband with a gung-ho girlfriend who knows her way around, or possibly my mum when she visits (a gutsy flip-flop haggler I’d imagine) and get more fully stuck into the fray! And then I’m dying to go along to one of the street parties, and while the taxi drivers tell me I’ll be fine with my bump, I think I’d rather wait until the bump can stay at home for an evening and I’m not going to worry about the baby getting deafened before it’s even born!