The rough hewn canoe /slash/ raft seemed seaworthy, but I wasn't very sure about her Captain. His dreadlocks were clanging silently against each other like a stoned wind chime as he rocked his head side to side and said, "Mon, no problem!" This was the catchphrase in Jamaica at the time. "No problem." Giant Squid could climb out of the reckless ocean and swallow Kingston. Those who escaped the tentacles and beaky death would just light up another spliff and pass it to you with, "No problem, mon!" as the signal to toke up and calm down.
My new bride and I had spent what felt like hours on a rickety bus in order to travel into the interior of the island so that we could ride this raft down some covert river for the afternoon. I think we assumed that there would be order. Order is hard to come by in an island on the verge of revolution, where the natives live in shanty shacks made out of cardboard and rusting tin, while the overlords live up on the hills in mansions with those selfsame shanty dwellers serving as servants. To say we were helpless in this situation would be an understatement. To say that we'd not really understood the politics of this desperate island would be so true that it might be life-threatening.
Our Pilot called himself Sam. There was a flotilla of around fifteen of these bamboo boats which would set sail that afternoon on a regular tourist trap of an adventure down the Great River (the natives were obviously too stoned to think of a proper name) in the middle of the island. As usual, my wife and I felt apart from as well as somewhat ashamed by the other American tourists. It's sort of like when you get older and you still think of yourself as a kid. You look around and think, "These folks all look and feel old, but I still look and feel like a kid!" When in a foreign land, you look around and think, "These damn Americans are embarrassing me. I feel like a local!" Of course, the sad truth is that you're not a kid and you're not a local and the natives don't see you one bit differently than they do the 350 lb. alabaster white lardass lady in the pink muumuu eating a triple decker ham sandwich for a "snack" with mustard on her three chins as she waddles into the native's boat, bitching about the heat and her husband's decision to visit this godforsaken island.
Sam seemed almost pleased that his passengers that day were a fairly young and happy couple who weren't complaining about anything, yet. Sam noticed that the man had brought his own stash of Red Stripe beer for the journey. Sam seemed to be giving props for the local flavor of such a decision, but might have been a bit put out that this might mean no sale of the cheap homemade rum which would be offered later. Sam spoke to us only in snatches of what sounded like song lyrics or bit of local poetry.
For instance, when I asked Sam if he enjoyed his job, he said,
"Is a foolish dog bark at the flyin' bird."
So, with this sort of cryptic conversation, we set sail. The river was lush and Captain Sam stood at the helm steering us with his long pole. I asked Sam if he thought he'd be doing this same job in five years. I was trying to find out how the natives on this island seemed to get stuck in this pattern of poverty. He reached behind him into a little compartment in the boat and pulled out one of the largest conical joints I'd ever seen in my life. He lit a match and fired up his first of many smokes that trip, rolled his eyes back and said,
"How many rivers do we have to cross before we can talk to the boss?"
"What 'boss' are you talking about, Sam? Do you mean the boss you have on this job or the Boss of It All?"
"There ain't no hiding place from the Father of Creation," he said, with the smoke drifting downwind right into my nostrils.
Have you ever smoked Jamaican dope? It's not like any other weed I've ever tried. It gets you alarmingly high, very quickly, and it seems to have a narcotic quality to it later on. It makes me very, very tired. I asked Sam if this local flavor had the same effect on him. He was halfway through his spliff by this time and just leaned over, looked at me almost eye to eye and said,
"Easy skanking, mon."
Our first stop was at a high dirt bank where a local lady had set up a cheap card table. She sat there above us, looking like Miss Cleo plus thirty years and minus a whole lot of makeup. Sam informed us that this was where we could try some of the "real treat" of the islands: Jamaican Rum. My wife and I had already tried some of this local Rum on a previous night in Kingston and had decided that it was like what we'd call white lightning where we came from, or what the Germans would call schnapps. Either way, it was early in the afternoon and we had no desire for what the multicolored-wardrobed lady on the hill was selling. Sam was displeased that we weren't partaking. He assumed a worried look and said,
"You lively up yourself and don't say 'no'."
I didn't like being talked to in this manner by my hired hand, even if I was on his territory. I said, "We don't want any, Sam. What part of that don't you understand?"
Sam pulled himself up out of the boat using a vine hanging down from an ancient tree. There was a wooden makeshift ladder up to the bank where the rumstress was hawking her liquid wares. The raft was grounded on a small beach area. Sam exchanged some words with the older lady and then they both turned to look at us in a way that Americans must get looked at in many parts of the world. There were half a dozen half-dressed ragamuffin children who were scampering about on the bank, and they all turned to look at the same time. It was as if we were getting a group version of some sort of Evil Eye.
When he got back in the boat, I said, "What was that all about, Sam?"
"Once a man and twice a child and everything is just for a while."
By this time, I was fed up with Sam and his code talk. I decided not to speak to him again and my wife and I spent the rest of the float trip talking to each other and ignoring our petulant stoner host.
Near the end of the trip, Sam jumped out of the boat unexpectedly. For what seemed like a long while, we just drifted along, becoming more and more concerned with each passing minute. Finally, Sam popped up from behind the raft and climbed back in, uncomfortably close to my new bride. I didn't say a word about his disappearance or ask if this was a normal part of the journey. I just said, "Sam, you must be the wonder of Jamaica. And I mean that in a negative way."
We pulled up to where the old bus was waiting for us. When we got out of his boat, Sam just turned his back to us. But I clearly heard him say,
"Them belly full but they hungry. A hungry mob is a angry mob."
My new wife and I reboarded the rickety bus to take us back to our cloistered Rose Hall hotel, where the servants smiled and made us feel welcome. As we drove away, we could feel the bloodshot eyes of the ganja raftsman staring an unsteady hole in the backs of our heads.