|Emy Louie, Consulting Services|
All of the people mentioned in the below write up about Kingston, Jamaica, except myself and unless otherwise noted, are dark chocolate skinned persons with an African descent.
My destination was the train station, in which I was always on the lookout for wherever I go. Another destination was Coronation Market. Both are located in downtown Kingston, Jamaica. At the break of dawn, around 6 a.m., from the hostel, I started to head over to downtown. This is my story about how I may have violated the local gangsters’ unwritten turf.
The Fruit Vendor Who Didn’t Readily Make Eye Contact with Me
After I got off the bus at the main bus terminus/hub in downtown, I asked directions to the train station from someone who appeared to be working for the buses.
I walked for a few hundred feet. I passed by a fruit vendor on the sidewalk. There were two men who appeared to be working there. One of them was serving another lady.
After the vendor finished serving that lady, one of the two men looked at me. This 30 to 40 something year old man didn’t seem to know what to do. He didn’t smile at me. He looked down towards the ground trying not to make a lot of eye contact, and there appeared to be a slight delay in his reaction to my presence as if we were all in slow motion. Perhaps his eyes seemed to express What are you doing here? and I am tired and irritated.
Even though hundreds of people were within 200 feet around us, and this was a bus terminus—a transportation hub to get to all other parts of Kingston—I didn’t see any police around.
The vendor’s reaction and the lack of police was the first sign I, as a tourist/foreigner/visitor should not stay in that area for long. I presume much more than one person was watching my every move.
I pointed to the cut fruit in the plastic container. With a half-smile, I handed to one of the men some money. In turn, they gave me the fruit and a fork.
I walked across the busy street. I saw a bunch of elderly people sitting down on a planter, under a large shade tree. I sat between two elderly people and proceeded to eat my fruit cup I just purchased. After I ate about four pieces of fruit, I saw a young man about 20 feet in front of me either standing on the sidewalk or close to the street curb. It seemed that he flashed, deliberately or unknowingly, a type of metal pruning scissors. These scissors, which were hanging from his waist or belt, had a distinct point which could act as an easy weapon.
Whatever this young man and the fruit stand vendors were expressing, it sure wasn't even with a half-smile, and they sure didn’t say "Have a nice day and come back and see us again soon!"
I almost sense there are street gangs and they are watching what everyone is doing and each person must do what they are supposed to do and if someone steps out of line, there will be undesirable consequences.
If this is so, this is what I would call a closed society—a society in which foreign influence and interaction is suspect and is limited and is strictly controlled. It's a place for only for the native born, I suppose.
If this is so, I stepped on someone’s turf or I entered onto someone’s turf.
After I saw the scissors, I got up and left. I was not scared, but I saw the scissors as a sign I should start leaving that immediate area.
Alarm Signals to Look for While Getting to the Train Station
I crossed the street and I walked along Beckford Street according to the directions given to me earlier. Beckford Street was about three car widths wide. There were no cars, just pedestrians passing through at the time. I walked in the middle of the street and the buildings to the left and right of me were shells of dilapidated and/or vacant, two story buildings which were missing doors and windows. There were piles of things, perhaps organic trash, which is compost, and inorganic trash, which is mainly plastic containers and plastic bags, lying around the street! To the outsider, this place looked like a war zone, like some scene in the 1991 movie New Jack City!
If I wasn’t just in Greater Mexico City, Mexico, a few days prior, and have been exposed to seeing heaps of trash lying around, I would have been an emotional wreck! But when I saw the trash and miscellaneous items strewn about the street, I was already used to seeing trash heaped up in piles or trash laying out in the open in the Mexico City open markets.
I was in Greater Mexico City for two weeks to learn Spanish and to visit Teotihuacán which is a town and municipality located in Mexico. Teotihuacán is the location of the third largest pyramid in the world. The pyramid in Giza, Egypt is the largest pyramid in the world! Lastly, I was doing environmental research on Xochimilco, which is a borough of Greater Mexico City, Mexico. Xochimilco is the site of thousand-year-old man-made canals. Both Teotihuacan and Xochimilco are World Heritage Sites.
As one can imagine, the Greater Mexico City, as of 2009, had an official population of 21.3 million people. In Greater Mexico City, I must have walked past hundreds if not thousands of open-air food stands, and through several open-air markets, which contained vendors all under a common roof. The average vendor booth was about 100 square feet.
Greater Mexico City, with such a huge population, should have their trash situation under relative control. One thing between the open-air markets in Greater Mexico City and Coronation Market in Kingston, Jamaica is the way they handle their trash.
It appears that trash gets piled up in heaps for all to see. I don’t’ know if the trash gets hauled away at a later period. Perhaps the organic trash can be composted right there, and perhaps the inorganic trash can be burned right there.
Therefore, the trash and bombed out looking, derelict buildings in the streets of Kingston did not alarm me.
The alarm signals usually come from men in their 20s whom I’ve had personal incidences with. They have a lot of energy and bravado and are looking for the easiest target to take their energies out on. Subconsciously, I was looking for angry young men.
I approached the intersection of Pecha and Beckford Street. I saw what looked like an abandoned bus building. I backtracked and went back one block I previously came from.
A few vendors were setting up nearby. Young women to elderly women, were walking by. There appeared to be as many women as there were men.
I saw a vendor—a man in his late 20s or early 30s. He was tall, muscular, probably holding some knife, and could be seen as intimidating. There were other people walking around; nonetheless, I asked him, “Is this Pecha and Beckford Street?” He gave me a quizzical look. He didn’t seem to understand my pronunciation of the street names.
I showed him my map and he saw the words and repeated the names in what sounded like a British or French way of saying the words. He was quite relaxed. When he spoke, I realized, at that moment, that I am in Jamaica and everyone should understand standard English as it is used in public and commercial announcements—such as on the bus. But the population spoke pidgin English, similar to how the locals in Hawaii understand standard English, but speak pidgin English.
Personally, as someone who grew up in Hawaii, I find it hard to be visiting Hawaii for more than two weeks and NOT speak Pidgin English. Pidgin English is spoken by almost everyone, from rich to poor, in Hawaii. Furthermore, in Hawaii, there is a considerable population who speak a very heavy Pidgin English.
Therefore, hearing a local Jamaican’s pidgin English and even the heavy pidgin English didn’t intimidate me, so I spoke proper standard English to this vendor. The locals will think I'm a foreigner and a tourist, but at least they can understand me, except when I pronounce French sounding street names!
The vendor pointed in one direction and spoke to me in a calm manner. “That street [over there] is Pechon.”
I said, “Thank you” and I was on my way.
With a bus hub, a bus building, a train station, a large open market, and a housing project nearby, one can imagine the flurry of activity that happened in its heyday, if there ever once was a heyday.
In my mind’s eye, I see men in pinstriped suits, with fedoras, suspenders and with winged tipped oxford shoes. A few shiny automobiles drive by. At the train station, there are people ready to greet their loved ones.
That is another time and perhaps another place. The life cycle of the place, a place, any place, flashes before me; but I was back to reality, I was back to the here and now.
The Open Market Next to the Housing Project
At the train station which I explained in this blog. The same man, who was sweeping the front of the train station and I, stood in front of the train station. From that particular vantage point, I don’t think I could see any other person in sight, which was strange. With a slightly active imagination, I can imagine this place at night to be the site of drug deals and prostitution, but right now, in the morning, the streets were packed with hundreds of people just two blocks North of here, and right at this train station, it felt like a ghost town.
He asked me, “Is this your first time in Jamaica?”
I said “Yes!”
He said, “Welcome!”
I smiled. I asked, “How do I get to Coronation Market?”
He pointed in a direction. He said, “You see the two palm trees?”
I looked in the direction he pointed. “Yes.” I said.
The direction he pointed to was also the infamous housing project--Tivoli Gardens. My husband told me Tivoli Gardens is internationally infamous because even the police don’t go there! I had marked on my map Tivoli Gardens so I knew where it was, and lo and behold, Tivoli Gardens is right next to Coronation Market—a famed open-air market—the heart and soul of Kingston. Well, if there are a lot of people in Tivoli Gardens, they need a food source, right?
At around 8 a.m. in the morning, the Tivoli Gardens were a bunch of concrete building and it didn’t seem like anyone was in sight. Two people were crossing a bridge over the train tracks.
The man at the train station continued, “Head toward those trees. The entrance is over there. Do you want me to escort you there?”
“No,” I thought that was out of his job description, I presume. I sure didn't want to return his favor. “Thank you!” I said, and I was on my way.
Directions to Coronation Market
The weather was hot already. I walked over to the palm trees. I saw Tivoli Gardens on my left. It was composed of concrete buildings. It was nothing really exciting or sensational. I went through the entrance to a parking lot. I felt like there were no directional signs! Two men were at the entrance. One man said, “Where do you want to go?”
I said, “Coronation Market,” I said casually, like I was heading to just another tourist site.
One of the men said, “This is the parking lot. [Don’t go in here.] Go straight ahead [on the side walk] and turn right.
Scanning for Signals Inside Coronation Market
When I got to that location, the entrance still didn’t look like an entrance! It looked like some back entrance to a makeshift barnyard. There was a dirt ground—unpaved. Around were one story buildings made of wooden boards.
From a thievery standpoint, there appeared to be more risk at the bus terminus/hub than at Coronation Market. At the bus terminus/hub, I got alarm signals from a person working for the buses, from a fruit vendor and from someone carrying pointy scissors. This would make more sense because at Coronation Market, there are too many mazes and not enough places after a crime is committed, to make a quick getaway. The bus terminus had dozens of bus lines stopping there, so a thief could easily disappear onto a bus. Coronation Market had many stationary people whereas the bus terminus/hub had people, mostly moving from one place to another.
At Coronation Market, I walked through a maze of these stalls and then entered the open-air market with a large metal roof overhead. The roofed area could have housed hundreds of individual vendors. A few vegetable and fruits stalls were open for business. Imagine how bustling this place would be if all the vendors were open for business and there were many customers per vendor!
To avoid standing out more than I’m already standing out and to keep myself from being distracted, taking photos was absolutely out of the question!
Then I passed by a set of concrete rooms on both sides of me. The rooms had no ceilings. Each room had locked caged doors. One room had a very used looking bicycle in it. Otherwise, the storage rooms looked rather vacant – not to attract the desire of thieves.
The floors were dirt or if there was a concrete floor, I didn’t notice it, or it was covered up. Then I approached a more open area. There was a small television set—perhaps a 15-inch television set. About a few men were watching something non-descript on television. There were more vegetable and fruit stalls open for business.
When I was in Kingston, Jamaica, I wore a sleeveless, long flowing, yellow tie die dress. Remember the weather was hot! I tried to look online at what females in Kingston wore during the day. The females shown online were dressed way down, as if they were going to the gym to walk on a tread mill, likely so they don’t attract any unwanted attention. Another set of females in Jamaica were the Rastafarian women, who were covered from head to toe. I even bought an inexpensive turban which looked silly on me, so I gave up on the female Rastafarian look!
I find that as a foreigner/tourist/visitor and ultimately as a representative for whatever a visitor may represent, whether the visitor represents tourists in general, represents a country, represents a race, it’s not good to “dress down” like the locals.
I want to give you an example why, and this was a fashion “mistake” I made when I went to India. When I went to places like the Taj Mahal, I wore a gauzy beige tunic and Merrell brand hiking boots with paint permanently splattered on it.
The locals kept on looking at my boots. At the same time, the young Indian men, when visiting these monuments and temples were wearing dress shirts and dress pants and dress shoes. Certainly, these Indians wouldn’t wear workout clothes to a shrine or temple.
Of course, attire is place based and contextual. You don’t want to dress “up,” wear gold and silver jewelry and designer name brands so as to signal to the locals, “Rob me!” At the same time, you don’t want to dress down and get a reaction from the locals such as them thinking and saying, “You mean these foreigners have some sort of money/resources to come all the way over here and they look like bums! They are dressed worse than the bums here! How disrespectful!”
So, I do dress like I made an effort to wear the proper attire, however, if you are of a different race and have different facial features and different skin color than the local population, like me in Kingston, Jamaica, you, like I, will never fit in.
Back to Coronation Market. Overall, 60% of the stalls under the roof were vacant stalls, but the scene changed a bit when I walked outside of the metal roof.
There were more stalls outside of metal roof open for business than under the metal roof, and the maze of vendors started again. I passed by an elderly lady with leathery skin and I bought only one ackee from her. While I was walking, I ate it in a few minutes and tossed the seed in this large area containing heaps of organic trash or compost. Note: it took about an hour to 1.5 hours to get off the bus and return to the same location to catch a return bus. During this 1.5 hours, with the exception of sitting down to eat some fruit for a few minutes, I was always walking and moving.
The vendors outside of the metal roof had some type of awning, but I don't remember exactly how it looked like. I was scanning other things and looking for alarm signals, mainly angry young men, which could compromise my safety. Under other circumstances, I usually do look at the physical surroundings much more.
I do have a story about how to identify alarm signals. Once, it was on the Greyhound bus:
Back to Coronation Market. It was getting hot. I have a sense of direction, so I knew about where to exit the market. After going through a maze of stalls, I ended up on a paved street, back near Pechon Street. Likely, I ended up on West Queen Street.
The Very Public Street
The streets were paved. It looked like a block party without the music, without people drinking and without people interacting with each other very socially. However, there were definitely people crossing in every direction. During this time, I saw a woman balancing a large sack of something like potatoes on her head! This is my image of Africa!
I walked about four short blocks and got out to the bus terminus/hub.
No doubt, I did not blend in via speech, mannerisms, dress and perhaps most importantly race. My difference was already a signal to the local population. If a dark chocolate skinned man who was originally from American or Britain visited this place, he would blend into the crowd. Nobody may notice him.
I say this last part about race and looks because when I was in Mexico City, I blended in quite well. This occurred early on, when I was at the Monterrey, Mexico airport for a layover. When I wait at any airport gate, I try to sit furthest away from the gate and still be able to see the gate. To my right, a lady sat two seats away from me; she was breast feeding. To me, breastfeeding is usually a private activity and in order to breastfeed in a public, most women need to feel some level of comfortability.
To my left, two seats away from me was another lady feeding her infant, baby food, and the entire contents of the baby food jar spilled on the carpet. That lady said something to me and I didn’t understand what she said, but I still smiled and she still went about her business. I felt she didn’t see me as foreign.
In Greater Mexico City, at the bus rapid transit station and on the bus, I had quite a few small verbal interactions – about 20 interactions. One time, I was standing at the bus ticket machine. A lady came up to me to ask me for change. Once I started hesitating, the lady moved on to ask another person for change. At the same location, towards the latter part of the Mexico trip, a lady asked me for change and I did give change to her.
In general, fear was a minimal emotion during these experiences. As long as I knew what signals to look for, where to go and when to go, things were smooth sailing, even amidst places that could potentially have a lot of crime. Crime usually happens during a brief time. The rest of the time, it’s business as usual—even for the locals. Perhaps we spend a lot of time fearing about the past, fearing about the future, but in the present, fear is minimal, even for everyday life, even in Kingston, Jamaica.
Emy Louie is a consultant and the author of "Fast Trains: America's High Speed Future.” From 2009-2016, Emy served as the Director of Public Outreach for the US High Speed Rail Association. Since 2008, she has taught continuing education classes on design and urban development to architects and engineers. In 2007 and 2008, she hosted her own radio show. Emy has a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Ms. Louie, is a “kama’aina/haole” (native/non-native person) adventuring to people, places and things on Oahu, Hawai’i, where kama’aina don’t usually go to--that tourists GO to, and vice versa. She lived in Honolulu in the 70's and 80's and visits Honolulu annually since then.