I passed by many things while walking from my grandmother’s rental apartment in Montego Bay, Jamaica to visit her in a hospital three kilometers down the road. A Hard Rock Café. Five-star hotels with aspirational names like Secrets, Breathless and Sunscape Splash. An old yacht club with abandoned boats sinking into a scum-filled bay. Luxury villas locked like prisoners behind steel bars. A taxi rank with drivers offering rides, drugs or both. A cruise ship terminal with idling jeeps and buses about to whisk vacationers on eco-tours. A police station with a long line of women and girls waiting to see their husbands and fathers who had been arrested in a recent wave of anti-gang raids. A restaurant where I once sat and listened to the pop pop pop of a nearby semi-automatic and tried to pretend it was fireworks. Fragrant gardens. Rank garbage. A gas station. People sitting in the shade of royal palm trees, trying to escape the heat of the day.
Despite all the things I saw, I mainly felt one thing. Fear.
It didn’t help that the tiny island city was in a military state of emergency. Camo-covered trucks were in the streets because 100 people were murdered in the first 20 days of 2018. As a comparison, in that whole year, 96 people were slain in my hometown of Toronto, a metropolis with more than twenty times the population.
My Jamaican cousins assured me the violence wasn’t worth worrying about. They said it was mostly gang members killing other gang members. Tourists and locals minding their own business weren’t in danger. They said the presence of green helmets and machine guns everywhere made things safer. It was curbing crime.
That doesn’t mean that my cousins were out strolling through Montego Bay. No way. They were safe behind walls both literal and figurative — passports and privilege and immigration laws and the latest high-tech home security. They were in Kingston or Florida or back up in Canada, speculating — not testing.
I just needed a break from cabs, though. And from being stuck alone in my grandmother’s small apartment, which was dark without her laughter, smile and irreverence. I was getting stiff-legged and claustrophobic. I was over-stressed. I thought my grandmother was about to die. She had a respiratory infection from a long-dormant case of Lupus. The doctor said her lungs looked black, as if she’d been a smoker all her life. She did smoke, at one time, but not since the 1950s. She was bed-ridden. She was immobile.
Walking is my favourite way to stop thinking about my own small hardships. Conversely, I find driving intensifies stress. I don’t like being trapped in a little box, only breathing my own air, unable to see the expressions in the eyes of the people I’m passing. But on two feet, there are myriad things to notice, and I go at a pace that lets me be distracted. Instead of thinking about my job or husband or spat with a friend, I take in all of the details around me. The textures of stucco walls. The cheeping and chirping of birds. The funny things printed on novelty t-shirts.
Relaxing into the details was harder to do in Montego Bay, though. My fear was too intense. I kept thinking about what my mother would say if she knew I was out strolling. She was on her way down from Canada but hadn’t arrived yet. I got there first. I was walking alone. Which is something she advised me to never, ever do in Jamaica.
When my mother was born in Jamaica in the early 1950s, in a small mountain town called Mandeville, the country had one of the world’s lowest crime rates. Middleclass children like her lived the kind of lives middleclass Canadians would recognize. She played tennis, enjoyed swimming and went to school dances.
But by the time she immigrated to Toronto in the 1970s, gang warfare was rampant in Jamaica, largely funded by rival political parties eager to secure and maintain turf. The country was newly liberated from British rule but weighed down by the colonial baggage of institutionalized racism, deeply entrenched poverty and wildly unequal education opportunities.
Many Jamaicans left the island when my mother did. Bob Marley was singing lyrics like “let’s get together and feel all right.” But that wasn’t some pat, Pollyanna message. He was trying to quell the rage that was cannibalizing his country. And he too was caught up in the violence. He was shot in the chest and arm, and his wife Rita was shot in the head, two days before a peace concert he organized in 1976. The assassins were never caught, and Marley exiled himself to London, England for two years. These days, the size of the Jamaica diaspora is roughly equal to the number of Jamaicans who live on the island.
All of which to say, when I was a child, in the 1980s and ‘90s, my mom raised me to be grateful I was born in Toronto, not Mandeville. I could walk freely in Canada, as long as I didn’t take candy from strangers, and as long I looked both ways before crossing the street. Otherwise, I roamed my neighborhood with my friends, making art with sidewalk chalk, playing in the ravines, never even questioning the idea that something could go wrong.
Instead, the cautionary tales I got were about Jamaica. I heard about such and such friend who was shot dead waiting for a bus in Kingston. About another friend being robbed at gunpoint in Port Antonio, or another in Montego Bay. Sometimes the attacks were targeted — the victim had too much money or the wrong connections. Other times, the violence was utterly random, painfully senseless.
Not that we never went to Jamaica. When I was young, I visited with my mother, brother and grandmother. I met cousins and aunts and uncles and I learned my family history. I saw where my mother was born and my grandfather lies buried and ate red pepper shrimp bought on the roadside.
I’ve since been back with my sister-in-law, niece, nephew and husband. We’ve toured all over. But we never touched our feet on the sidewalks, only drove past in SUVs and vans on our way to steel-caged homes — the kind that not only have bars on the windows and front doors, but on the bedroom doors as well. Cells within cells. Failing that, we stayed at the type of hotel where guests try not to think about why there are so many security guards, and why they’re all carrying guns.
My grandmother left Jamaica around the time my mother did. She lived in the Cayman Islands, developing their tourist industry, then came to Canada after she retired. But when she turned 88, she decided it was time to move back to Jamaica for the first time in over 40 years. She had lived a long life, she said, and the violence didn’t deter her anymore. She wanted to be back on the island she loved for longer than a week’s vacation. She missed the rhythm of the patois and the sharp Jamaican wit. She wanted to enjoy the island’s beloved music and food again. You can find mangos in Canada. But they aren’t the same. The best ones have been ripened in the full shine of the Caribbean sun.
And she did enjoy herself. She re-connected with old friends and played bridge and swam in the sea, wearing giant flippers, flitting through the waves as carelessly as a little girl. Everything was great, until she got sick. That’s when the family started making plans to visit just in case, and friends sent e-mails of concern from all over the world. That’s when I set out to walk to her hospital, unsure of what else to do with myself.
The trek took almost 40 minutes. I passed an upscale seafood market advertising “to-go” bowls of lobster soup. I passed an orthodontics clinic. I walked through a round-about with the cars circling passed so fast I almost turned back, unsure how to make it through without getting hit. I passed Rupunzels Hair Boutique and a bank and young boys wearing school uniforms of white collared shirts and brown polyester slacks.
I tried not to think about my grandmother’s terrified, ashen face when I first saw her in the hospital, her white hair sweat-drenched and limp. I tried not to think about her shaky, frail hands that were so weak lying in my own. I tried not to think about how strange it was that all of a sudden her vivid, vibrant memory was failing. The first time I saw her, she didn’t know where she was. She wasn’t getting enough oxygen to her brain. I tried not to think about how likely she was to die, or about the irony that the cause wouldn’t be the violence we were all hiding from. Instead it would be her own body failing, the way all bodies eventually do, if they live long enough.
If my grandmother had been in full health, she would have scolded me for walking. She did months later when her lung infection slowly, surprisingly got better. “Were you mad?” she asked. “That was very dangerous.” But in her hospital bed, she wasn’t strong or feisty enough. She simply asked me to get her some better food than the thin broth the nurse was serving. She wanted vanilla ice cream. I should have known she was on the mend. I left the hospital and walked to a nearby plaza, and bought her a little container of Haagen-Dazs. I passed a Wendy’s and a patty shop and middleclass teenagers drinking iced lattes at a nice cafe.
A day later, when my mother arrived in Jamaica, I told her that I had walked to the hospital. I said that it was nice to get the exercise, especially in the strain of the situation. To my surprise, she wasn’t upset. She offered to walk with me. She needed to calm down, too. At least there’d be two of us, we both thought. We passed joggers and gardeners and hotel maids rushing to work. We talked about my grandmother’s failing health, and how the doctor wouldn’t say if she’d ever leave that narrow, plastic-wrapped hospital bed. My mother hadn’t been walking in Jamaica since at least ten years before I was born. She said maybe we should buy some of that lobster soup for lunch.
Other than the taxi drivers offering us rides and weed, no one hassled us. We never felt unsafe or afraid. We stopped walking, though, after my grandmother’s nurse found out what we were doing and launched into a rant. She told us the same kind of stories my mom used to tell me as a child about unpredictable, inescapable acts of violence. Walking might seem fine, she said, but we were easy targets. She made us promise not to do it again. My mom rented a car. The drive was fast, everything blurred by.
My grandmother is now 89 and doing much better. Bob Marley died of cancer, aged 36.
Several weeks after I got home from Jamaica, two men in their twenties were shot to death on my block in Toronto. A woman was injured. They were gunned down on a corner I’ve passed through thousands of times. But I still see the details. I know there’s a neon restaurant sign that says Peter Pan and that quirky café I keep telling myself to try yet never do.
The deaths haven’t stopped me from walking in Toronto. I can’t predict what will eventually take me, or my grandmother or anyone. But I have a certainty that by staying locked indoors I’ll never see the richness of the world. I’ll only know the singular dullness of the fear, with nothing to try and make it go away.
This story was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize.