Tuesday, December 06, 2005

"The Eagle has landed" (Jamaica 1969)

On 2 Dec. 2005 NASA in collaboration with California space organizations announced two $250,000 prize competitions to develop technologies needed for exploring the moon and beyond. After the shuttle disasters, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, the value of manned space travel has been questioned.

This got me thinking again about the moon and where I was on 20 July, 1969 when we heard those thrilling words, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

In July 1969 I was in the midst of a 6-month holiday in Jamaica.

My father, an Air Canada mechanic and inspector, had taken a posting to Jamaica when the Air Canada base in Winnipeg closed. Air Canada had been contracted to get Air Jamaica up and running and my Dad was one of the staff assigned to the airport in Kingston. I was lucky enough to be able to quit my job at Canadian Red Cross Blood Transfusion Services in Winnipeg and spend six fabulous months essentially bumming around Jamaica.

When Apollo 11 LEM landed on the moon, we got it on Jamaican television but it was really blurry with much static. However, I distinctly remember going outside and looking up at a cloudless sky with a perfect full moon - whether it was or not I do not know but that's the memory.

Must admit it was magical - something to treasure forever. My other memory of the event is of the ads on Jamaican TV. One for "Creamo" was on all the time (milk, I think), as was the one for Red Stripe beer.

Living in Kingston, we got to see more of the real Jamaica than visitors to the north shore resorts in Montego Bay (Mo' Bay) and Ocho Rios. Kingston, the capital, had much poverty and squalor, banks guarded by men with machine guns, crime and violence, yet so many kind and friendly people going about their daily lives. The political scene was energetic, with heated debates from the right and left on how to create a prosperous country.

While we resided in an expatriate compound with gardener, maids, and swimming pool, many, if not most, Jamaicans lived in shanty towns with houses that reminded me of my grandmother's chicken sheds. My parents were encouraged to hire a maid and a cook in order to give employment to the locals, which they did.

As it turned out my parents got to be friends with Mrs. Harley (cook), Rema (maid) and Eric (gardener), which created a bit of a trouble with the East Indian Jamaicans that managed the compound. My Mom started to have lunch with Mrs. Harley and Rema, with us all sitting at the kitchen table, which apparently was "not on" - the "reprimand" did not stop my Mom, though. Similarly, my Dad would occasionally allow Eric to sleep overnight in our car, a "dangerous" practice according to the managers, but like my Mom, this disapproval did not deter my Dad.

It was the first time that I saw what looked like prejudice in people who were not white Caucasians. Jamaica has a real mix of cultures and races and its own class divide.

Besides the local beach in Kingston (great rollers!) and weekend trips to Ochos Rios, one of our favorite trips was from Morgan's Harbour Resort near the airport in Kingston to Lime Cay. Just a short trip by motor boat, we would go over for the entire day and be picked up before sunset. Lime Cay is about as close to heaven as there is. White sand beaches, pale green water, sea shells galore, and shaded areas for picnics. If you are ever in Kingston, take this trip!
Some vibrant memories of this time:
  • Dreadlocked Rastafarians sitting by the roadsides in a ganja haze
  • Beachcombing on Lime Cay
  • Playing scrabble with our American neighbor's 12 year old son Felix for hours by the pool (the kid was a genius!)
  • Eating paw paw fruit and mangoes. With paw-paws all I could think of was the enzyme papain and its use in blood bank serology!
  • Climbing Dunn's River Falls on the north shore
  • Reading everything I could about Jamaica's history;
  • Eric killing a lizard who had taken up residence in our bathroom with a machete (my Mom only wanted him out, not dead)
  • Listening to tales spun by neighbors Hamish and Myra from Scotland (he with Lloyd's Bank)
  • Trips through Fern Gully on the way to Ochos Rios
  • Upon entering a resort at Ochos Rios, my young cousin Wendy exclaiming, "Pat - it's just like the movies!"
  • Seeing the red bauxite red mines that blight the landscape (and offer jobs)
  • How many families were headed by women, with mothers working and grandmothers taking care of the children
  • Giant flying cockroaches (sometimes hiding in kleenex boxes) and the odd scorpion
  • My cousin Wendy and I lying in bed at night with the lights on scanning the walls and ceiling for the dreaded cockroaches or harmless geckoes
  • Blue Mountain coffee with a chaser of Tia Maria
  • Political figures such as Norman Manley, Michael Manley, and Edward Seaga
  • Reggae music (once heard, the soft chucka-chuka" beat stays forever)
  • "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
Most of all, my brief 6 months in Jamaica were memorable for seeing another culture up close, one with a history of exploitation and extreme poverty, pockmarked by tourist resorts of great wealth.

I have never forgotten what Jamaicans would say if the mail was late or the electricity was off: "Soon come, mon." All in all, a pretty good philosophy.

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