I’ve traveled to a lot of places in my life, some usual and some at least a little weird. For example, while in London I went to 221B Baker Street to take a tour of the Sherlock Holmes museum. (The top floor had an ornate porcelain toilet that looked like Wedgewood.) And I took Donald Rumbelow’s Jack the Ripper evening walk.
But that’s far from the weirdest, which was probably Jamaica. Actually, it was supposed to be Haiti. My boss was sending me there to report on the work of a charitable organization called “Food for the Poor” that, well, gave food to the poor in the Caribbean.
There was political unrest in Haiti at the time (as there frequently is). Someone (or ones) were shooting presidential candidates. I wasn’t too worried, as I can by no means be mistaken for a presidential candidate. Then they started shooting journalists. Yikes! It was time for me to bail.
Bailing became unnecessary when the destination was changed to Jamaica. This was not to be a tour of the beaches and villas, however. No, this was the poverty tour. (There’s plenty of hungry poor in Jamaica as much as in Haiti.)
When I (and the other journalists) arrived, we were treated to a swank dinner at the hotel we would all be staying at, and told when our wake-up call would be. (Too damn early. It was too damn early every morning.)
We toured a school. It was a little unnerving, but dozens of second-graders swarmed out to greet us with cheerful greetings and insistent hugs around our legs and waists. We went to a church mission, where we learned statistics on poverty in Jamaica. We went to projects where Jamaicans were making handicrafts to sell. I bought a handwoven set of placemats, though they didn’t match my kitchen’s color scheme.
In the evenings, we retired to our hotel, too tired to do anything but sit at the bar by the pool and have a Red Stripe beer. In fact, sometimes I got so tired from the day’s work that I couldn’t even write. I’d try to write an “f” and it would come out “t.” I got leg cramps from all the walking we did.
Still, there was no opportunity to feel sorry for myself. We went to a huge garbage dump, where many people lived. There were only a couple of pipes where you could get water amid the acres of trash. People lived on the things that were thrown away from swank dinners like we had been served – leftovers, cloth napkins, a fork. A knife was a particularly prized find. There was a small stand amid the garbage where local inhabitants sold a few scavenged goods to their fellows. I asked for a soft drink, which they did have a bottle of. The proprietors huddled for a minute, wondering what price they should put on it. They eventually settled on $2 American, which I paid gladly but sadly.
Another day, we went to a project where people went to develop marketable skills, such as sewing. There was a singing and dancing group. Then they served us lunch, which was, of course, impossible to refuse. It was a stew of curried goat. I can report that the taste and texture were like a heavily curried pot roast. Actually, not bad.
The most unusual place that we visited, however, was a leper colony. Yes, with actual lepers. We were reassured that they did not have active infections, though it was apparent that many of them had lost limbs to the affliction (now called Hansen’s Disease). There was singing of hymns, accompanied by a guitar played by a man with three fingers. I lingered a moment and asked if they could play a local tune. Suddenly, the people’s voices lifted in a rollicking song with more decibels and life than the hymns had. I asked if there was anything they wanted, what would it be. The workers wanted a new washing machine. The guitarist wanted new strings.
On our last night there, we journalists all drank our Red Stripes and discussed what we would take away from the experience, which was largely more awareness on how the desperately poor lived. A couple of the journalists stayed on for a few days to explore the beaches.
When I got home, I wrote my article, which was a major flop. Despite the fact that it appeared in a religious magazine, it solicited few funds for the charity, which had been the point of the tour in the first place. But I still have hope that the article opened a few eyes, as it had opened mine.