Since “discovering” Jamaica 25 years ago and finally making it my home in 2005, I’ve had many wonderful moments in the Land of Wood and Water. Including my one and only brush with royalty. The occasion was Prince Charles’ visit to the Montego Bay parish of St. James in March 2008. I have zero status in such matters, no official credentials in high society—I’m a retired boat captain; I have no business power, no social influence. I never sought a position in civic affairs. (My only claim to fame was as an early Greenpeace eco-activist.) I was the classic uncredentialed outsider, party-crashing the prince’s (and wife Camilla’s) royal reception. As with many things on The Rock, it was a gem of coincidence supplied by the Natural Mystic. One of my yard nephews—in Barrett Town, near Rose Hall outside Montego Bay—came by on his way to school to let me know his class was chosen to greet the prince at the Half Moon Bay Resort, only a few miles from our house. So I grabbed my Nikon and taxied to Half Moon Shopping Centre , to hole-up at a friend’s pub and await events.
When a tour van arrived full of kids from Rollins Success School, I went into action. I “attached” myself to them and their gracious teacher, and hopped their ride to the resort’s Royal Pavilion. There, after much usual confusion, we were lined up along the entrance drive, then given little paper Jamaican flags. And we waited. It seemed by everyone I asked, from groundskeepers to waiters to scrambling event managers to the police, that exact time of arrival was unknown. A state secret. In the land of James Bond, that means no one needs to know until it happens. I assumed the vagueness was to satisfy royal security security. I imagined there would be MI6 there (especially as the current news was about son Prince Harry being in a battalion in Afghanistan). But the security standards we’ve all grown to expect in these dangerous times—after King and the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Reagan, John Lennon and Peter Tosh, and the try on Bob Marley, not to mention the suspicious death of Charles’ own ex-wife Princess Diana—were glaringly lacking. When the entourage finally did arrive, it passed quickly and unceremoniously—except for our waving flags.
There was no music (I miss the old Caribbean brass marching bands), but the formal police motorcycle guard was alongside, decked out in red-white-and-black, and the line of black Benzes and official vehicles rolled by impressively. Swept up in the sudden rush were unsuspecting hotel guests and locals, walking or on bicycle, adding to the barely viable but magically organic “no-problem” chaos of any Jamaican experience. Once the entourage was passed and inside the pavilion, our classes (from three local schools) were shunted to a picnic beach once-removed from the manicured English gardens of Half Moon. A short bamboo fence gave the imnpression of separation, and for the kids, it is sufficiently respected as a boundary. The kids lolled around for two hours, unfed, without even so much as one sighting of the royal couple beneath the garden tents. They were brave, proud kids, humourous as all kids are; but they were disappointed, and hungry, hurt that they were used and then neglected like so many robot lawn jockeys. I was incensed, offended to, for them, but also like them, helpless to change it. Or was I?
I decided to take action, give it the old college try. I would sneak in, get pictures and bring them back for the kids, and see about food, as well. Hiding behind my Nikon, I violated the implied barrier of the bamboo fence, strode across the lawn like I was going to the Rest Room, then stopped and sidled onto the pavilion verandah, hoping my appearance (nicely-dressed elderly white man) would afford me time to find my prey among the St. James Parish elite. The crowd, it turned out, was at least half white. For once I didn’t stand out. All who saw me shooting seemed pleasantly in accord, evidently assuming I belonged. I “followed the energy,” as they say, until I found the Prince and Lady suddenly appear in my viewfinder.
I had reached my quarry. I moved among the crowd around the royal couple, shooting steadily, maneuvering closer and closer until I was virtually next to them. It was easy to figure who was security, both white and black—British and Jamaican. They were making no moves. I kept shooting. Only later, reviewing shots, did I realize the moment Tourist Board Chairman Ed Barnett eyed me, and realized I didn’t belong. The chronology shows that only two frames later did I receive the proverbial tap on the shoulder. I was kindly escorted away, allowed to leave unmolested, with my camera—and the shots. I had “counted coup” on the Crown Prince of the British Empire and got away with it. Only in Jamaica . . .
Back on the beach, (as security suddenly carried off a lone PETA protester in a bear suit!), the kids viewed the shots with great interest. Pursuing my second objective, I found a kindly businessman who agreed with me to bring the kids to the now-neglected buffet tables. With camera memory maxed out, I could not capture them swarming over the lawn to the buffet like grinning army ants. And trust me—the girls are no slower or meeker than the boys! The royal couple soon left, in the confusion of officials, tourists and guests (but no schoolkids) crowding around their car, as they debated which car doors to enter. I smiled. What a nice place to live . . . I caught the kids’ van back to the school. They sang, joked, and received stern lectures from the teachers reviewing behavior and their “role” as representatives of school, family and nation. The kids were tired and hungry; they had little energy for a lesson in civics, but still they paid attention. The Jamaican character is what it is because that civility and respect is stressed so strongly, or Jamrock might be too dangerous a place for heads of state to visit; it is sobering to imagine the headlines if I were someone with darker intentions. But I am also proud that Jamaican youth can so winsomely transcend uncivil treatment by those same venerated heads. It is the backbone of the nation.