A true Jamaica story from Jack Slater….
One of my favorite days in Jamaica was during last July when I brought some stations down to Ocho Rios for a broadcast promotion. Two friends from the resort took me off-property for the afternoon. We ended up at a roadside shack made of corrugated tin and wood, typical for the Caribbean, where beer was sold and reggae music was playing.
Linton worked for the resort, and having known me for a couple of years, knew I’d like to experience the “real” Jamaica as real Jamaicans know it. That’s what made this particular stop so special. We walked in and only two people, including the bartender/proprietor, were present. The one patron there was a young man in his twenties who didn’t say much. The man behind the counter looked like he was in his sixties. He looked at Linton in a way that asked for our order. “Three Red Stripes, please” Linton answered. Then, turning to both the young man and the bartender asked if they would also like a drink. Both politely passed on the offer by pointing to fresh drinks in front of them.
With the icy cold bottles in hand, we walked over to an early 80’s vintage electronic poker machine. Linton was clearly a gambler and immediately began a round. “You offered to buy them drinks?” I asked in my naive Yankee way. “Yes, why not?” Linton responded. His tone suggested that it was basic protocol to do so. “But the guy owns the place” I insisted. “He’s our host” Linton explained, “it’s only polite”. Baffled, I walked back to the bar and sat down near the end by an open window. From there I could look out across a poorly paved street and a lush ravine beyond. The far side featured shacks similar to the one we were in, but those were family homes. Outside, women were cooking the day’s meal over open pits while laundry dried on wires strung between palm trees. Goats and other domesticated animals wandered freely on the hillside. I gazed at the scene for quite some time. It was peaceful and natural. Simple, compared to the agitated society I had been used to. It was a Wednesday, and the scene was only briefly changed by the return of uniformed primary (gradeschool) students up the paths to their homes. In Jamaica, a person’s home is referred to as their “yard” (pron “yahd”) and it was apparent where that expression came from. Your yard is your home with a shelter.
“Yuh need anedda beer, mi friend?” The bartender’s voice woke me from my daydream. “Yes, mon. Two”. I answered. He went over to a glass-faced refrigerator and removed two bottles of Red Stripe. He opened the bottles and placed them in front of me. I looked back at him hoping for a cue as to how much I owed, but we ended up just looking at each other. Finally I had to gesture toward the open bottles. “Two hundred” he said. OK, the exchange rate. I had only US money on me and he was definitely not used to taking anything but JA from his clientele. I did the math as quickly as I could in my head. “About 47 into two hundred is?what??just over two bucks a bottle??” I couldn’t think. It was bad enough that he was staring at me never mind that I couldn’t make sense of the pricing. I pulled out a five-dollar bill and handed it to him. The confusion grew. He knew he owed me change, but didn’t know how to figure it. I felt that his two dollar Red Stripes were too good a deal and that didn’t even include the tip, so I waved my hand to signal that no change was needed. “Tanks mon” he said with a sincere nod. I slid one of the beers toward his empty beer bottle on the counter. He smiled and thanked me again.
“So, this is normal” I thought. I started to feel like I’ve never known civility. Then I considered the reaction I’d get if I walked into a bar back home and bought the bartender a drink. I shook my head and went back to gazing out the window.
Linton was busy either winning or shorting out the poker machine. He called to the bartender every so often to press some kind of button behind the bar. A wire ran conspicuously up the wall from the machine, wound across the wooden rafters, and dropped loosely down to a doorbell type button next to the drink mixes on a shelf. He was in fact winning. The bartender had to reset the machine to allow additional games. Years ago in the life of this machine, a set of quarters in a slot would do the same thing, but this was serious gambling where a $1000JA win put $21US in your pocket.
I like some “new” reggae music, that is, the kind that young Jamaicans like. The other patron at the bar looked like he was enjoying the vibes, but my real favorites are the “oldies”, particularly the hits from the 60s and 70s. The “soundsystem” in the shack looked like it was from that era with it’s built in record player, 8 track tape slot, and cassette deck. “What do you like?” I asked the bartender while pointing to the dusty speaker hanging on the wall. He listed off a dozen artists that I adore. Smiling, I countered with my own list of songs by our favorite singers. “Yes mon! Respect!” he joyfully exclaimed. He then disappeared behind a door and returned a moment later with a handful of cassettes. All of them had labels with the one word “REGGAE” written by hand in brightly colored pen. He excitedly placed one in the cassette player and turned up the volume. It was a classic from the 60s and I knew every word. The breeze from the window seemed to circulate the sound throughout the shack.
It had been hours since we first walked in and Linton was ready to cash in his winnings. The “house” owed him $500JA. I felt bad that my new friend at the bar would have to pay up, but Linton refused the cash and insisted “In beer, in beer”. Everyone in the place got a beer on Linton, including a middle-aged couple that recently arrived. It was time to go, so I gave the bartender a Jamaican handshake followed by “Respect”, the ubiquitous greeting that seems exclusive to Jamaican culture. On the walk back to the resort, Linton noticed a laborer hacking down weeds by the side of the road. The midsummer heat was oppressive and the man looked like he had been working all afternoon. “Wait here a moment” Linton said. Then he walked over to the man, handed him a beer, gave the handshake, and returned. “Do you know him?” I asked. Linton again had to educate me. “No, but he looked like he needed a beer” he said.
We arrived back at the resort a short time later, and I thanked Linton and his friend for giving me a chance to see what few tourists get to see. I walked across the property and found some members of my group at a poolside bar. “Where have you been all day?” one asked. “Out with friends” I answered. I knew I didn’t have the time to tell them the story, nor did I expect that they’d see the experience as enchanting as I did. Suddenly, a large guest emerged from the pool nearby and pushed his way past me to the edge of the bar. “Two Stripes!” he barked at the bartender. His swim trunks dripped on my shoes. Before I could squeeze past him to a dryer spot, he grabbed his beers without even thanking the bartender and returned to the pool.
At this all-inclusive resort, the guests can eat and drink all they want whenever they want. No money or beads are used and tipping is discouraged. Signs behind the bar read “Please Do Not Tip. It Is Our Pleasure To Serve You”. I looked over at the pushy guest by the pool and thought about my afternoon at the roadside shack. “Did you have a good time at least?” one of my friends asked referring to my time off-property. “Yes” I replied. “I feel like a better person”.