Saturday, September 20, 2008

Getting Hustled in Jamaica: Vampires, cops, joints, dark beaches

Jamaica08.EmsPics 105.2

We’re checking into our hotel in Negril, Jamaica, and the owner leans in and says to me, all quiet: “Friends, beware. Do not walk the beach at night.” Kind of a terrifying thing to say. Then later, we asked a random native if there was anything unsafe around. A woman, she said, “The beach,” face stone cold. “Never at night.” We joked about vampires, and the possible real-life threats. It was hustlers, turns out. Men in shorts who run up to you in the dark, beaming, shaking your hand, telling you about their family, “five kids,” how if they don’t earn enough their family goes hungry, handing you sticks of gum, bracelets, rolling papers, and then trying to make you pay extraordinary amounts for it all. The impression I got (we were politely hustled once, for about $10 U.S., didn’t let it get to me), is they’ll get aggressive and almost violent, but fall just short. They wouldn’t mug you, not on the beach, but they’ll sort of guilt trip and extort. Almost seduce, not unlike a vampire.

Anyway, our first night, we’d heard of a reggae concert at a nearby club, maybe a mile south of where we stayed. We decided to go. Heeding the locals’ warnings, we walked the street instead of the vampire-invested beach. Later, we learned that it was assumed and widely known that the street is twice as dangerous as the beach.

About halfway there, passing numerous resorts on the right—all the signs the same, wild childlike painted signs—a man yelled at us from across the street. “Hey,” he implored. He broke off from an outdoor party he was attending, waited for passing cars to cease, and ran over to accost us.

“I have to greet everyone in my neighborhood,” he explained. I didn’t like him.

“Do you work around here?” I asked.

“Ha! Business man!” he called me. “Business man,” pointing to his head repeatedly, almost to show I’d quickly flushed out his purposes as criminal. A strange way to respond, I noted.

“No, I work at my home,” he pointed. “I have girls there who work for me.” It seemed he was extending an invitation for us to return with him to his home, for various yet-undefined entertainments.

“We’re just on our way to a concert, we’ll hit you up on the way back, “ I said, trying to quickly and politely part ways with him.

“Wait,” he said. “See, I know if you leave now you won’t see me again tonight. See, I know you, business man,” beaming, and pointing to his head again. I smiled, because I didn’t know how else to respond to all this.

“Let me be honest with you,” he continued, nearly in a whisper. He had gone from jovial to a mood that seemed almost furious.

“Let me be honest with you,” pressing his thumb to my sternum. “Totally honest. My beers," he paused, "are fucking ice crystals.”

I kind of liked him now. He was funny, and he ran some sort of home with women workers and cold beer. He extended a lit joint to me, and begged me to smoke. I held it, debating my next move.

At this precise moment, everything became extremely bright, flooded, so immediate. A white van had pulled up right into our trio. The bumper almost touched my shin. It was the police, two of them. “Stay still,” Ice Crystals was saying. “Drop the joint,” Emily was saying. The cops approached us. The cops in Jamaica, they carry machine guns.

I dropped the joint on the gravel, as nondescriptly as possible, my arm flat against my side. One of the cops went immediately to Ice Crystals, grabbed his beer out of his hand and threw it to the ground in a very not nice way. The second cop, he approached me, his eyes on the gravel at my feet. He was kicking the ground, kind of swiping it slowly back and forth with his foot, casual.

He said, “What did he say?”

“He was saying we should go back and have beers at his house,” I replied.

The cop did not reply to me. He had heard enough. He turned to Ice Crystals, spoke some sort of fast rebuke in Patois, and quickly cuffed him. They pushed him into the van. It took both of them, and they were doing it slowly. Emily said, “Let’s just turn around, slowly, walk straight through this hotel, and go straight back the beach.” Balsy move that would be. I wanted it though. We turned, walked, right through a grass yard.

“Hey!” I heard from behind. Oh, God. We’re going to jail in Jamaica.

I turned. It was not a cop, it was another Jamaican man.

“Are you staying here?” He asked, somehow devouring a piece of chicken at the same time he asked this. He wore a windbreaker, baseball cap, was obviously a security guard for this particular hotel.

“No, we’re just trying to get back onto the beach.”

“Oh. It’s straight that way,” pointing. We were literally three steps from the sand. We thanked him for the directions. We calmly walked out onto to sand, the moonlit sea brighter than you’d think, like there were glowsticks everywhere under the water. We’d brave the vampires after all.