When my friend Beth asked if I wanted to join her in Jamaica for a week, my answer was yes. After all, I had been to Jamaica decades before on a cruise and the idea of the tropics appealed to me. I had been struggling a bit with health issues, depression, and chronic pain and I knew the sunshine was just what I needed to lift my spirits. I boarded the plane in Detroit expecting a week filled with fruity drinks, tourists buying trinkets along the beach, a few laughs, and some much-needed vitamin D.
But, what I got, was so much more.
Seven days later, when I left the island, I was carrying my backpack, a full heart, and an intense longing to return.
The moment we disembarked from the plane in Jamaica, Beth found her old friend Clovis. Clovis was with Beth five years ago when she came to the island carrying the ashes of her father. Jamaica had been her dad’s home-away-from-home and she wanted to lay him to rest under the ancient tree standing alongside Negril’s historic lighthouse.
But nothing in life is easy, and Beth ran into snag after snag trying to get her dad through customs. Each day, Clovis would pick Beth up from her hotel, drive her 45 minutes into Montego Bay, and help her navigate the court system. It took them five trips before she was finally able to lay her father to rest.
It was on those five trips that Clovis and Beth became fast friends.
Five years later, the first thing Beth asked of Clovis as he picked us up was, “Take us to the nearest beach!” Clovis complied, and as soon as we arrived, Beth dropped her bag on the sand, kicked off her shoes, and ran into the ocean (still wearing her clothes from the plane.) “This is exactly what my dad did every time he visited the island,” she yelled. I turned to look at Jack, her nephew from Michigan, he looked at me, we both shrugged and ran to join her. With laughter and a splash, we began our vacation.
That first day, as we scoured the bottom of the ocean for Beth’s lost earring, we ran across Yvonne and J Marie. They were floating nearby. Within moments of saying hello, we were fast friends. We talked for almost an hour about why we were there and the unbelievable pull of the island. Yvonne came to visit years ago and ended up staying.
Over the next few days, we met up with more people, some Beth had met before, some she had not. We checked in on Rosie at the local grocery, met Adrian the bartender at our favorite watering hole, ran into Delbert at a street party, had dinner with Willie, Oliver, and Jody over a discussion of Game of Thrones, checked in on Bentley the caretaker at Sea Grape Villas, visited our favorite local artist Karl, and watched as Daddy Coo gathered his plants and medicines each morning to take into town.
I was having a wonderful time. A lot of the aches and pains I experienced back home were dissipating and I had been smiling non-stop. It helped that I was traveling with like-minded people. They were each laid back, kind, low-maintenance, and in no particular hurry to do anything but relax. Over our days on the island, we explored abandoned resorts and hidden swimming holes, coaxed each other into jumping from the rocky cliffs into the churning ocean below, played Uno under the light of mosquito candles and glow sticks, and laughed into the night.
After a few days on the island, I began to realize that I had never really been to Jamaica. What I had seen more than a decade ago was the polished surface the tourism boards hope its visitors see. This time around, I was seeing the real Jamaica.
And nowhere was it more real than in Rock Springs.
We had asked Clovis if he might drive us by his childhood home. We were honored when he said yes, and even more honored when he invited us over on Easter Monday. (They celebrate on Monday in Jamaica instead of Sunday.)
As we began our ascent up into the Jamaican blue mountains, the asphalt gave way to dirt and the foliage became thicker. The first place we stopped was the little hut that housed Darnette, who went by the name Chun-Chun.
Chun Chun took Clovis in when he was just a small boy. His mother was ostracized from the village because of a foot deformity that left her hobbled and gave off a bad stench. His father had 30 children across the village and refused to acknowledge Clovis as his son. Chun Chun would sneak clothes, and food, and shelter to Clovis when others would not. She gave from the very little she had to make sure he grew into a man. She planted a seed.
Clovis moved to America when he was a young adult. The hardest days of his life were spent toiling in the fields there. He would send the money he made back to Chun Chun and to his mother. He talked about the money starting to roll in the more he worked. His only goal to bring more blessings to those who helped him when he needed it most. During our day together in Rock Springs Clovis, with a voice filled with pride, told us, “When we leave here, I’m going to take you and show you what I did for her.”
There was no doubt that, in these mountains, Clovis was king. When asked what his secret was, he remarked, “Just be a good person.”
Over the day, Clovis introduced us to the village. We met Steve aka Boom Boom. Soon, we renamed him Peacock Steve after the way he would flirt with every woman who crossed his path. Well, almost every woman. He left Beth alone. He whispered to Clovis and Sean at one point, “That woman over there? She a gangsta woman!” Peacock Steve is a smart man.
We met Keisha, lil girl, and Andrew. Andrew was Keisha’s boyfriend and lil girl (the only name we were given) was a spitfire of a girl, sitting back and watching as the adults revolved around her. Every once in a while, when the mood would strike her, she would get up and dance to the music, throwing a rare smile our way.
Wesley, lil girl’s biological father, sat a few feet away. He was a silent man with a kind face and warm eyes. He held lil girl’s baby doll when she asked him to, rubbing her affectionately on the head. There was no tension under the hut. It was evident that the entire village took part in child rearing and that they were a family, no matter what.
Patrina, a young and vibrant grandmother, exhibited this philosophy as well. She would leave periodically to check on some nearby girls who were swinging in a tree, playing. When she would come back, she would approach each of us with, “Are you okay? Are you having fun here? Are you happy?”
Happy Face, another little girl, stood in the doorway of her shed as we entered the village. As we each passed her, she smiled big, living up to her name. When I walked in, she looked at me and immediately walked in my direction. Without skipping a beat, she wrapped her arms around my waist and hugged me tightly. She did not say anything. Just hugged me. She must have known how much I needed that hug, how much I missed my students.
As the day progressed, Mr. Natty hobbled into the shed slowly. He was the 85-year old elder of the village and it was his birthday. It was at this point that the party truly began. Red Stripes were brought out for everyone and Beth, Jack, Sean, and I began to buy round after round. We also purchased cookies, crackers, and snacks to bring out for Mr. Natty and the village. Without hyperbole, I’m pretty sure we cleared out a few months worth of provisions.
Sean became hero for the day when he brought out his music. He had an app called DJay 2 that allowed him to become a DJ, mixing songs for the crowd. When Andrew and Steve saw what he was doing, they ran to get a giant speaker. They took the wires from the speaker and hooked them directly to the powerline that ran through the village. Before too long, vintage reggae music from the 70s was pounding out from under the hut. Everyone cheered and began to dance.
They dubbed Sean “The Selector” and called him Ricky Choupo, a famous Jamaican DJ. Soon, the villagers crowded around him, waiting to see what he would select next.
His biggest fan was a beauty from the village that stood next to him for most of the day, helping him select songs and smiling nonstop. Sean himself, the quiet type that could sometimes be hard to read, came alive that day. His smile so bright and pure it could have powered the village for the next ten nights.
That was the effect of the day on each of us. My face hurt when we drove away that evening; I had been smiling and laughing since I had arrived.
Decades ago, in college, I remember reading from Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She said, “There are those that believe Black people possess the secret of joy and that it is this that will sustain them through any spiritual or moral or physical devastation.” I saw that joy when I visited Rock Springs.
Here was a village that, by outside standards, lived in poverty. Their homes were cobbled together with boards, their toilets were outside, protected by discarded scraps of tin, their clothes were worn and faded. Yet, they were filled with joy. They were happy.
Comparing them to people in the states, people with elaborate homes, manicured yards, expensive cars, and trendy clothes, there was no contest. The people of Rock Springs were filled with wealth beyond measure. At that moment, if I had the choice, I would turn to live with them.
Before we left, Keisha came out of her home with a plate of Bun and Cheese. This was a luxury in the village, reserved for holidays like Easter. We each grabbed a bun, gulping it down with sips of Red Stripe. Our time together was coming to a close.
As we drove away, we waved to our new friends shouting out promises to return. We rode in silence the rest of the way down the mountain, lost in our own thoughts.
For a brief moment, we each had it: the secret.
The only question left to ponder? Would we hold on to it? Or would it slip through our fingers the moment we landed back in the states? It is a question each of us will answer in our own turn.
Until then, you will find me listening to vintage reggae, sipping a Red Stripe, and trying to remember the day when, for just a moment, I possessed the secret of joy.
When you lose everything you are free to do anything