Struggling to cope with my mother, fugitive chickens and napping US Presidents on Jamaica’s election day and I stage a one person anti-Iraq war protest in the back seat of my car

Jamaica pix summer

When I got back to Jamaica, my mother’s health had deteriorated sharply. Instead of crying and wailing she was now screaming loudly, and it would start at 5am and not end till after midnight. Every morning, before it was light, I was jolted out of bed by her screams, a terrifying alarm clock. I was so traumatized by the experience I wanted to kill myself. I felt like my insides had turned into a nest of snakes that was devouring me alive. But then I discovered the solution to this nightmare. My mother was on Ativan, lorazepam, a much stronger benzo than Valium. And when I nicked one of her pills everything went into a purple haze. She would still be screaming in her wheelchair but, with the lorazepam, it was as if it was happening miles away and I was alright, on a drugged up cloud. But I wasn’t taking the pills all the time, I didn’t get hooked. My mind kept going back to the decision my mother had made in 1999, after she’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, not to have the implant, as recommended by the doctors, but to have a lobotomy instead. I suspected that the lobotomy had led to the strokes and wished to god my mother had taken a different decision. I realise now that my mother almost went mad when my father left her and didn’t really make a single sensible decision after that.

But as my aunt had said there were two options in Jamaica: suicide or enjoying the ride. And despite my despair over my mother, I was enjoying my work. I was doing a lot of pieces for From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4 which was great as I got to perform all the oddball characters as well as writing the script. They said I was a shoe in for the actors’ union Equity. Not realising the humour of the promise, the government in Jamaica, as part of its road building programme, had vowed that all the country’s roads would be “Pothole Free by Two Thousand and Three.” Commissioned by Radio 4, I crossed the island to take a look, at one point being overtaken by a chicken as the roads were so bad. I was told by a woman in one town that the reason it was so bad was “we na ave na representation,” and that M.P in Jamaica stood for “Missing Person.” Swerving to avoid a pothole was so sudden and dramatic in Jamaica you practically lived with your hazard lights on. When I got on the bus back to Kingston, the enticingly named “Juggernaut of Love,” the conductor said about the potholes: “dem cause a whole leap a accidents. And people lose dem life like nuttin cos of pothole.” But, I said, pointing to huge black patches of newly laid tar, the road repair programme was clearly underway. The driver sniffed that the government would find twenty potholes and patch ten and completely ignore the other ten because the more patching that went on the more jobs they could give out. “And with all this road work goin on,” he said, “who yu t’ink will win the next election”

“I couldn’t say,” I said.

“Well,” he scowled. “Nat the Opposition.”

My first election day in Jamaica, October 2002, was quite an experience. For the first time in my life, I saw fugitive chickens strutting along the main roads in Kingston. Goats, dogs, or even a confused cow would not have been such a surprise. But fat, glossy, brightly coloured chickens? Such prized birds were normally kept under lock and key as, my taxi driver said, “Uno cyan move wid a chicken much faster dan a goat.”

The reason for the fowls sudden freedom became clear as I set off with a photographer at 6am. Frightened by the prospect of election violence, the entire population of Kingston had left, or disappeared, transforming it into a ghost town. Even the buses had gone.

We were following the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former US president Jimmy Carter and his oddly named “Café Observers,” whose job was to supervise the election. At our first polling station, everything was apparently going to plan. Only the voters were missing.

But after a while three turned up – including a large fleshy woman brandishing her candidate’s card, with clear instructions who to vote for. So much for secret voting.

At the next station a large group of voters were already queuing patiently – some in green supporting the Opposition and some in orange – supporting the government. Secret voting again. It was here that disaster struck…. Not for the election, nor for Mr Carter, but for me. Foolishly I’d asked my driver to pop into a nearby McDonalds to get some coffee. Suddenly, Carter emerged and, despite frantic calls to the driver, by the time he returned with the coffee, the Café Observers had completely disappeared. “Get Carter!” I shouted, as we sped around trying to pin point what polling station the former President was in.

Thankfully we bumped into the convoy as it made its way to another polling station in the same constituency. This was the first “garrison community” – enclaves of Kingston totally controlled by the ruling People’s National Party or the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party – that I’d visited on election day. And the atmosphere was frankly frightening. Crowds of angry Opposition supporters rushed at our car, banging on the roof and bonnet and urging us to go to a nearby polling station where they said: “de police an’ PNP conspire ‘gainst Labourite ca dem na wan’ JLP get fi vote.”

The polling station was packed with Opposition supporters and “electoral liason officers” who explain to their party faithful how to vote. A lone PNP official hid silently in a corner- ignored by everyone. Heavily armed soldiers in camouflage barred the doors to the station – preventing the mob of JLP supporters from coming in.

Despite the fact that any voter who’d turned up in an orange shirt would certainly have been beaten to death, Mr Carter and the Café observers said that, “everything seemed to be fine.”

At the other polling stations in the constituency, I was impressed by the fortitude of the Jamaican public – determined to cast their vote. Hundreds of people queued for hours in torrential rain, some had umbrellas, others sheltered under trees, none were dressed for the rain. If the weather was this awful on election day in the UK, I thought, only the MP’s themselves would bother to vote.

But the Carter observers decided, after a while, that the rain was too heavy and retreated to a restaurant for lunch. Determined not to lose him again, I took up a seat where I could observe every move of the Observers.

But after two and a half hours the Observers and myself were confused. Where was Mr Carter? We had the sneaking suspicion that the sprightly 78 year old had, in fact, slipped off for a nap. Well, what’s good enough for a President of the United States is good enough for me, I thought, and had a tiny snooze in the back of my car.

And who won the election? The bus driver was right. The road building programme worked and the government was elected for a fourth term.

After a lifetime of visits to Jamaica and seven months of living in the country, I saw another sight I had never seen before……A man with a vast multi-coloured umbrella attached to his head pedalled purposefully up to my door on a bright red bicycle. “Can I help you?” I asked – “Apartment 14?” – he replied. – “Yes…” I said with a worried look (preparing to say that I did not want a mango, discount air-conditioning, flip-flops, a Bible or an insurance policy. ) “Who are you?”

“Your postman,” he replied, a smile cracking his dark, sturdy looking face.

“My God!” I cried. “I’ve never seen one of those before.”

……. And with that he handed me a letter, from abroad, the first that had actually arrived in the entire time I’ d been there. “Out of many; one postcard,” I thought, paraphrasing Jamaica’s national slogan, “Out of Many, One People.”

It was estimated by local businesses that twenty million letters went missing in Jamaica every year and that 80% of letters from abroad, which often contained money, got “lost” in the post. In search of my absent letters I went down to the Central Sorting Office in downtown Kingston.

As I entered the building, I glanced at a pristine but empty post office open to the public on the ground floor. A post office without queues! I thought, as I made my way up to the Central Sorting Office – a vast cavernous concrete space with windowless walls and harsh artificial lighting which reminded me of a giant underground car park. The place was deserted apart from a small, dapper, moustachioed man who helpfully suggested – with a friendly smile – where my mail might be.

“In Japan..”

“I’m sorry?” I replied – confused.

“You see this is a special period,” he said, gravely adjusting his tie, “since September the 11th and the World Trade Centre.. an all dat business wid de Amtracks.”

“The Amtracks?” I said wondering what the American rail network had to do with the Jamaican postal system.

“The Americans naa let any of de mail in.”

“To Jamaica?” I said.

“No where,“ he said. “Not on dis side of de worl,’” he continued. “Becaa dem wan’ de germ to die before it reach dem…So de mail from Englan’ dat used to go t’ru de United States affu go all roun’ de worl’ before it reach ‘ere. It go t’ru Asia t’ru Panama t’ru Pakistan t’ru Mexico – caa den de Americans t’ink de Amtracks will ketch dose people firs.’”

“Who are you?” I said ..

“Herbert Brown …Chief Inspector of Mail…In Jamaica,” he replied with a helpful smile.

“And what about the mail inside Jamaica?” I continued, thinking of the dozens of telephone, electricity, water, gas and mobile phone bills which had failed to arrive for me or anyone else in my building.

“Well de terrorists cyan strike at America’s friends too,” he continued, glancing away. “So we affu be extra careful…..we jus trying to protec’ the public.”

“But what about before September 11th?” I said. “I understand there were problems with the mail even then?” At this point he directed my inquiries to the Postmaster General or her deputy – who were both in a meeting for the rest of the week.

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One missive from the UK which did arrive was my boyfriend from the BBC, Mike R-Phone, who’d come out to see me in Jamaica. He was kind and caring and highly intelligent and worked as the overnight manager at the Cable Straightening Department at the BBC. We had so much in common but he was quite a lot older than me. It was a bit like Tarquin, he was entirely suitable but the sparks just weren’t flying off the love horse shoe. I still thought an orgasm was a top secret region near the North Pole and that great sex was an attempt to hoodwink the human race that only happened in films. I wondered what all the fuss was about. He was kind and loyal and supportive towards me, seeing the terrible state my mother was in. He had money and properties, in many ways he was Mr Right, but I just wasn’t attracted enough. Maybe not going for Mr Right, but instead Mr Donkey Dong, Mr Dangerous, Mr Hot and Mr Unavailable, was why I was still single at 32. But it was a relief to have someone out there to support me with my mother.

As the situation with my mother got worse and worse, her screaming and distress more and more pained, my suicidal thoughts escalated and I thought I would slash my wrists. Every time I did my driving lessons I felt like I was dying inside and wanted to crash the car. My driving instructor noticed that I could barely drive anymore and asked me what was wrong. “My mother’s ill,” I said, “it upsets me,” I wasn’t able to go into detail about the horror I was going through. I told my aunt I was suicidal and she said they had better find me a flat to live in on my own. She found a fabulous one bedroom flat, an upper maisonette in a little complex. It had an amazing view of a rainforest covered mountain in front and lush, verdant, gardens behind.

It was a relief to be out of my mother’s flat and I went on a shopping spree buying things for the new flat. My aunt took this money out of my mother’s funds she was controlling so it didn’t cost me a penny (or so I thought). I settled into my life as a freelance reporter (and dutiful daughter) at the flat, working till 4am as it was so hot during the day. At least it wasn’t like Oxford and I wasn’t sprinting around the library at god-knows-what-o’clock. I was now rent-a-hack and was working for every newspaper that would pay me as well as the BBC. I had finally found my stringer’s job and there wasn’t a mud hut in sight. But I still, unlike most reporters, switched off my mobile phone all night and wouldn’t answer my landline before 12pm Jamaican time, 6pm in the UK. When they tried to get hold of me earlier and asked where I’d been, I’d always say I’d been in an early morning meeting. Of course I had, I’d been meeting Bunny in my bed.

I made a friend in my new apartment building, Candy, a former beauty queen who was very kind and wasn’t blonde or a Baroness so didn’t make me feel like the Elephant Man. My family were behaving strangely, I’d always been very close to my two cousins, Suzanne and Michelle, like batty and bench as they say in Jamaica. But now I was in Jamaica they never invited me out or came round to see me. People said that it was because they were jealous as I had a lot more money and was all over the newspapers and the BBC. And having discovered that diet apocalypse, Xenical, I was much, much, thinner than them. But whatever the reason, the support I had from my family was limited in Jamaica and I felt very isolated. Almost missing the company of the nurses at my mother’s flat, I felt incredibly lonely and started drinking on my own at home. Not drinking with a meal as I might have done before but, for the first time in my life, drinking alone to get drunk. After 3 double vodkas the loneliness would just go away, replaced by a warm fuzzy feeling in which I felt OK. I had no idea that this meant my alcoholism was progressing, from binge drinking to proper alcoholic drinking on my own.

And it was to get even worse. I covered a big story before Christmas which had an unfortunate impact on my life, introducing me to a different crowd in Jamaica, far away from my respectable family. 19 British Nationals had been arrested in Jamaica’s tourist mecca, Montego Bay, carrying almost a tonne or six million pounds worth of marijuana in their suitcases. While saying they knew nothing of the drugs in their luggage, all 19 had identical designer suitcases which customs thought was odd. UK officials then said there were thousands of British nationals posing as genuine holidaymakers staging organised drugs runs from Jamaica to the UK, sometimes travelling with young children to reduce the risk of being searched or even to hide the drugs. This had escalated partly because of the story I had covered the previous year about the large number of Jamaican drug mules on every flight to the UK. Because of the outrage my story caused in the UK, it led the British government to impose a visa regime for Jamaican nationals entering the UK. This cut the flow of Jamaican mules sharply, leading the drug traffickers to target British passport holders instead. I went to interview the miserable suspected British drug smugglers in the lock up in Montego Bay. They’d probably never seen such conditions in their lives and had plenty of time to make friends with the giant rats. I was hanging out with friends of the imprisoned traffickers in Montego Bay and, for the first time in Jamaica, sampled Colombia’s most notorious condiment. I also came into contact with various Colombian drug dealers who all had Identikit Mansions in Montego Bay, with that drug dealer favourite an anti-aircraft missile disguised as an umbrella stand. They loved me with my fluent Spanish and soon started phoning me up incessantly, asking me to go to Hawaii with them. At that stage I thought this was hilarious and would say to my friends when a call came through: “Hang on I’ve got a drug dealer on the other line.” Little did I know that, later, as my addiction to cocaine progressed, my drug dealer would become my best friend.

That Christmas I threw myself into the party season, trying to forget about my isolation and my mother’s illness. But I didn’t end up face down in a plant, I was strictly vertical. At one party, I was approached by an incredibly tall, handsome, mixed race, man who said his name was Tarzan. Not only was he gorgeous but he had a masters and was living in the States. I was very taken with Tarzan, marriage fantasies started to flit through my head. Of course due to the shortage of Emperor penguins in Jamaica, (no wedding of mine could take place without this essential element),the wedding would have to be in the States. And when Tarzan came out of my bathroom, loincloth hanging from his thumb, I practically wet myself. But I was a good girl, now I was in Jamaica, and didn’t have sex with him.

We kept in contact on the phone when he went back to the States, (frequently interrupted by the drug dealers), and arranged to meet in Miami soon after Christmas. I went to the hotel, in delicious anticipation of amazing sex: his physique was super human, he spent 9 hours a day in the gym. But when it came down to it he was critical about my body saying my nipple was the wrong shade of pink and my eyebrow had a split end. This made me feel as attractive as a baboon’s bottom on an Imodium day. Yet again, like Akbar, here was a gorgeous man I fancied the pants off but the sex was as cold as an Eskimo who’d swallowed the key to his igloo. I despaired at every finding a proper shag. My marriage fantasies dimmed, (the flamingos would have to wait), I set off to Jamaica with a nasty taste in my mouth.

On my way to Miami I’d been pounced on by a Colombian Venezuelan man, called Shagger, who lived in LA. He zoomed up to me at the check-in, forced himself into the seat next to me on the plane and begged me to go out to lunch at Miami airport, which I declined. Although very good looking, I didn’t fancy him as he looked like a weird lodger I’d had, who’d had an overly close relationship with the tadpoles in his room. Little did I know that this man was a sex god who would show me what sex really was.

Back in Jamaica I had finally got permission from the government to go into the country’s only women’s prison at Fort Augusta, outside Kingston. This had taken 6 months to organise, no foreign journalist had ever got in and was basically a massive coup. There were a large number of British inmates in this jail, all there for drug smuggling. My preparation was extensive, this was a big story that I was covering for Radio 4 on the BBC. But when I got into the prison, past all the security, I realised there was one element of preparation I’d missed: my tape recorder wasn’t working at all. The devastatingly poignant and powerful interviews all came out like the white noise when your TV’s broken down. I phoned a friend who worked in Jamaican radio, Tomlin Ellis, desperately needing help, saying “I’m in the prison but my tape recorder is dead as a goat’s testicle floating in a Jamaican stew.” He shot out to the prison, bringing me a working tape recorder, allowing me to cover this scoop. I’m eternally grateful for this favour which would otherwise have left me in the same flustered, red-faced, position I’d been in when the taxi driver in Buenos Aires had shot off with my tape. This meant all my incredibly emotive interviews about the bombing of the Jewish centre in Buenos Aires were probably recorded over by a bootleg recording of the Beastie Boys.

According to the prisoners, the conditions in the prison  were horrific: rats the size of cats, cockroaches everywhere, mealtimes “like a warzone” and people sleeping on the floor. Some of the British prisoners complained of being beaten by the guards, one after she’d tried to commit suicide. The prisoners felt the British High commission in Jamaica had abandoned them. The High Commission said the prisoners committed the crimes because they thought they were in desperate economic situation in the UK but that, until they landed up in a Jamaica jail, they had not really understood what desperation was.

In the wider world, on February 15th 2003, there was a global day of protest against the imminent Iraq war. It was the largest protest the world had ever see, up to thirty million people. And me. George W Bush and Tony Blair were claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in 45 minutes. The UN weapons inspectors hadn’t found the weapons but that was because, our Dear Leaders said, they were being concealed at top secret locations and would be found when they went in. In Jamaica everyone was too frightened of offending Big Brother America by protesting in the streets. But when I heard it on the radio, I staged a (very noisy) one person anti-war protest in the back seat of my car. As I had no banner, or megaphone, I waved around a leg of fried chicken I was eating instead. I should have had George W Bush flavour chicken, known in Jamaica as jerk.

But it wasn’t just the people of Iraq who were about to have a spot of turmoil in their lives. My ideal husband, Tarzan, dumped me saying my Advanced Conversational Orangutan was simply not up to scratch. He also, rather cruelly, said I was “clingy” as I “had no one in my life in Jamaica.” Well kick a girl while she’s down. I lay flat out on my bed for an entire night, wailing silently. Of course I couldn’t cry. Once again my fantasies of the zebra, flamingos and Emperor penguins (no wedding of mine could take place without a private zoo) hit the crash barriers of reality. But little did I know that Tarzan had a massive surprise in store for me.                                                                                               Sign up for updates on this blog

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Next week: Tony Blair takes us into war on Iraq, I become the Imelda Marcos of fake designer bags, have my first orgasm and dial 999. And free love on the NHS, threesomes with the Surgeon of Death.

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