Monday, 17 October 2005

oh, island in the sun

Ah, Jamaica. I've been avoiding writing this up for a week, but here goes.

So I headed off a couple of Saturdays ago to Montego Bay for the Models conference. A train to Paris, in which I wrote up my notes for the first of my two presentations, then a wait at CDG until I could check in for my flight to Heathrow. There were maybe a dozen or so of us on the flight going on to Models, including Jean-Marc and his wife. At Heathrow we were running late, and had to hurry to get to the gate in time for boarding, along with a few Germans that we met, including Gregor Engels. Anyway, the Jamaica flight, in a sign of things to come, boarded an hour late, so we (by now perhaps 30 Models'ers including Germans, Spaniards and others) were in plenty of time.

Jamaica is a poor place. I guess I hadn't figured on that so much, but the ride from the airport went past some pretty marginal housing, a goodly quantity of barbed wire, and an army jeep full of guys carrying semiautomatic weapons. The hotel could not have been a bigger contrast. After passing guarded gates, it was basically a colonial compound. 3km of private beaches, swimming pools everywhere, buses and golf carts to ferry people around. There were 5 rooms, I think, in our villa, and we were taken care of by our own cook and butler, which was a pretty weird vibe for me personally.

The conference itself was pretty good. The MTIP workshop on Monday, at which I presented, was valuable (in a global sense) and interesting, and I chatted with a number of interesting people. My talk in the main conference on Wednesday went well, after some soul-searching on Tuesday night on how to frame it. I got very positive commentary from some people, and only one real critic. I also had a chance to chat with someone from the graph grammar crowd, which should serve me well going forward. Elsewhere in the conference, I chatted with a bunch of people, including the Microsoft Research guys from Cambridge, who are doing good work.

Living in the resort was weird. I had a swim in their lap pool, which was something I'd wanted to do, but I didn't have a swim in the sea, more from lack of opportunity than lack of desire. I'm not used to luxury, though, nor to having 'servants' (though I use the term with hesitation). That said, when I left Friday into town, it was into uncertainty, not relief. The hotel into which I checked in town was pretty dodgy, with a choice between a noisy aircon and stifling heat. Also, and I'm no interior decorator, but the decor of the room was purple and green. I'm not talking pastels, either, these were verdant rainforest green and eyebleed purple.

So the weekend began, and an interesting one at that. Friday night we headed over to the pelican to meet some other people from the conf. We were a pretty international group of 7 people: ukraine, canada, brazil, england, germany, estonia, australia and france were all represented either in nationality or residence. There was also a jamaican guy who the german guy had met, who proposed to take us all on an excursion down south the next day. Gradually we accepted, and in the morning we piled into a couple of rented* cars and headed out.

It was a good day. We went to a house where they kept hummingbirds and had them perch on our fingers and drink nectar from bottles. We went for a river tour and saw egrets, mangroves and crocodiles. We went to some pretty amazing waterfalls and swung on a rope swing. We bought baked fish, hot breads and coconuts from roadside markets. It was fun.

The fun ceased the next day when the two guys who had paid deposits on the cars realised that our erstwhile friendly guide had taken them for a ride in more ways than one. Neither he nor the ~US$1000 in deposits were to be found. As for me, I went for a walk up and down the tourist strip, pushing aside the guys hawking tourist schwag, hash and hookers.

After finding a park to lie in and read for a while, I walked west towards town. Along the way I was approached by a young guy, and we started talking about cricket and stuff. We kept walking, him showing me stuff around town. After a while he suggested we go grab a beer and a joint. I turned him down on the joint, but we bought a beer and he bought himself some weed. It was probably at this point that I realised I was in the wrong part of town. It was basically a ghetto.

I really shouldn't have been surprised that, when I tried to take my leave, my 'friend' and another dude who had followed us started asking for cash. I was pretty annoyed. They were really indirect about it - "Sometimes, we show people around and they show us respect by giving us like ten, fifteen thousand dollars (about $US160)." - but the message was very clear. I wanted out of there, so I offered them increasing amounts of cash until my wallet was empty and they suggested I go to a cash machine and get them their money. In hindsight this is weird, but I basically negotiated them down to about five thousand, claiming to be a poor impoverished student. I was pretty conscious that I had a laptop and a digital camera in my bag worth 8 times what they originally "suggested". So I withdrew some money, like $50, and hotfooted it back to the tourist strip. The rest of the afternoon I wallowed and wondered why the TV wasn't showing the Australia-Jamaica soccer game. Later, withdrawing money for a taxi to the airport, some dude claiming to be called "Mr Cool" offered me weed or women, claimed he ran the streets in the area (still on the tourist strip), and asked me to get some cash for him while I was at it. I just shook my head and walked away.

So I didn't get a great taste of Jamaicans as a people. It went beyond me and my friends being robbed, though, or getting crap pushed on me while walking down the street. It was the two-facedness of feigning friendship first that got me. Probably it was also the fact that I bought it, but I value that sort of naivety, and I resent it being taken advantage of.

So thus endeth the lesson, right? No fear. Arriving back at CDG via Heathrow, I found myself alone watching an empty baggage carousel. Turns out Air France, in their wisdom, put my suitcase on a later flight, and I, like a moron, had left my house keys and phone therein, making it impossible either to head home and have the suitcase delivered later, or to call and ask someone to put me up. My laptop's email archives and Gabrielle came to the rescue, and after recovering my suitcase, 4 hours late, I met her in town and she found me a bed in her son's room. As a final rub, my phone wasn't in the suitcase. Air France promised to reimburse me the monetary value of the phone, but it doesn't have any; the value was in the list of contacts and the number.

So my work blog will say the trip was very useful, but it says right here that it sucked.


Anonymous said...

I've been watching the first season of Deadwood, and had a laugh on your behalf when Swearengen says "If you here me bleet when I speak, it's because I just got fleeced".

Afe said...

That shit sounds kinda scary. Like being shafted by the friendliest robbers in the world. Hang onto your innocence my friend.

Anonymous said...

Not a good place for Steels. The last one I knew of that went there was pressganged into Nelsons navy and took nine years to get home to his family.

Jim said...

Funny you should mention that guy. I was chatting to a friend the other day, and Waterloo and the battle of the Nile (Aboukir) came up. I was able to show him the reminiscences by way of showing that I had an ancestor there :)