Sunday, September 27, 2009

How To Avoid Time In A Caribbean Jail

I was shocked to hear about the plight of the six Brooklyn tourists in Antigua who have been detained and charged with the assault and battery of several police officers. My shock involved many levels of disbelief. Number one, Antigua a tiny 14-mile-long island, with a relatively stable economy and government, isn't the sort of place where brawls and fights thrive. Number two, who goes to another country and fights the law enforcement? But there it was, all over the national and international news. USA Today reported
here that the six tourists blamed the undercover police officers for not identifying themselves and starting the brawl.

Local Antigua newspapers say that the tourists used indecent language, were rowdy and generally disrespectful. The crux of the situation is that the young tourists left their Carnival cruise ship and hired a taxi driver to take them on a beach excursion, agreeing to pay $50. The driver insists that it was $50 each way and when he demanded $100, the tourists refused. He took them to the St. John's police station where the violence sparked. The six have been detained in Antigua for three weeks, awaiting trial.

Of course, there are many unexamined layers to this case. The first involves the general resentment toward American travelers. Browsing through Caribbean blogs and message boards, a large consensus feels that American boorish behavior had finally been handled properly. Complaints about American traveler's cultural ignorance, rude attitudes and expectations to be lavishly catered to filled every site. It seems that there were 11 tourists that crammed into the taxi van, even though they noticed that it was parked away from all of the other (legitimate) taxis. They asked to be taken from the port to the beach and then to use the drivers phone to call about ATV tours. When he informed them they'd have to use a phone card, he drove them to a store so that they could buy a card. They complained about the $6 phone card price and decided not to buy one. The driver drove them to the beach and then came back for them an hour later. They sang, banged on the van's ceiling and played games. When they asked again to use his phone, he asked for his fare. He had spent 2 hours driving the 11 tourists around. They handed him $50, he explained it was $50 each way. They refused to pay double so he drove to the police station.

Now, having personally experienced the intricate trickery of NY taxi drivers, I understand how the tourists might feel like they were being ripped off. They had agreed to $50 up front. On the other hand, I don't know where you can expect to pay $50 to cart 11 people around for two hours. That doesn't even cover the gas. I think there was an element of "it's a small island, they should be happy with what they get" going on. Not to mention Brooklyn residents' reputation for trying to hustle anything and anyone.

On the other hand, this particular taxi driver, known in Antigua as Hungry Bird, is notorious for cheating tourists. His taxi wasn't parked with the others because he was thrown out of the taxi association 10 years ago. The Bird family controlled Antigua through two consecutive prime ministers for decades. Bird political corruption was such that noted Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid compared them to Haiti's Duvalier family. So you know the nickname "hungry bird" does not indicate anything good. In this case, the fare that Hungry Bird asked for was not unfair but when he drove the tourists to the St. John police station and not the one at the port, fairness wasn't on his mind. The station is not clearly marked as a police station and many of the officers there don't wear uniforms. But Hungry Bird is reputed to have a friend or relative at that station. The tourists didn't know where they were or whom they were dealing with. They insist that the police started slapping, shoving and grabbing them.

This is what I know. Antigua has enjoyed a solid reputation as a peaceful destination for a long time until last year. That's when two British honeymooners were killed and earlier this year,an Australian yacht captain was murdered in a robbery attempt. Crime is rising and the Antiguan police department is not known for its effectiveness. I was in Antigua for their 25th independence celebration in 2006. I was struck by the warmth of the people. I was never hassled, come on to or treated rudely. At the independence celebration, I danced for an hour next to a guy that everybody kept photographing. He turned out to be the prime minister. I can think of a few islands where incidents like this happen all the time but Antigua isn't one of them.

When I first heard about the situation, all I could think about is what I would do and what I'd advise any tourist who found themselves in a similar predicament.

1. Research about any country you're visiting, even if its just for a day. It's clear that the tourists knew little about Antiguan culture because some of the women were walking around in bathing suits. Many of the accounts and comments noted how indecently and half dressed they were. It's considered rude and disrespectful in most of the Caribbean to walk around in swim clothes when not at the beach or pool.

2. Find out what the basic rates for taxis are and what taxi companies are recommended. There are no meters in small island taxis. If you don't know the island, you're left at the mercy of the driver. Educate yourself about what is reasonable.

3. Don't go to another country and expect things to be the same way they are at home. This goes back to number 1. Learn something about the people and culture and you will know what to expect. The tourists complained that the officers had no badges and didn't identify themselves. This is procedure in the U.S. but not in Antigua. Many officers don't wear uniforms.

4. Don't act like a fool. I sympathize with the detained tourists but only up to a point. It has been correctly pointed out all over the Caribbean blogosphere that these Brooklyn tourists would never have cursed and performed with NY cops the way they did in Antigua. There was one officer in uniform who they said didn't respond to their pleas for help and they said they feared for their lives. So they cursed and fought. Antiguan officers don't carry guns so it's not clear why they felt they were in danger. The telling detail is that only 6 were arrested. The others were released and returned to the ship. These were the tourists that weren't cursing and fighting. Whenever you're in a foreign country, it's best to be polite and follow the rules. In this case, that would have been to pay the driver the money he requested. They may have felt swindled but they would be at home and not languishing in Antigua, waiting for their trial.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

St. Lucian Shak Shak Music

Jamaica has reggae, Trinidad has calypso, Cuba has son and St. Lucia has shak shak music. Folk music defines Caribbean culture and in St. Lucia, it's the shak shak rattle or shakare, fiddle, cuatro, banjo and drum that form the shak-shak band, which displays the essence of native Kweyol culture. Kweyol is the French-based Creole dialect spoken only in St. Lucia and nearby Dominica. The upbeat rhythms of shak shak music ring out from fish fries, small rural gatherings and many hotels. I met Lawrence James, the shak shak and harmonica player above, on the lovely Fond Du Estate. He has been playing since he was a child and like most folk musicians, is self-taught.

James' shak shak is fashioned with tin cans and seeds, which float around to make the requisite scratchy sound. Recently, a revival of traditional Kweyol culture has encouraged young people to learn shak shak music and songs. In the video below, a small shak shak band composed of shak shak, banjo and drums play for a grandmother's birthday in a St. Lucian home. Young and old join in, singing in Kweyol.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wandering On A Water Taxi

I pride myself on staying current with all Windy City events so I was shocked to discover bright yellow water taxis coasting down the Chicago River a couple of months ago. When did that start? I wondered. Apparently, in 2007, when Wendella boat tours decided to provide taxis for downtown commuters. If you never stop to gaze at the Chicago River between Michigan Avenue and La Salle, you will never see them. It looked like a fun excursion to me, even if you have no where in particular to go. So I grabbed my kids and headed toward the underground labyrinth to the water taxi stop.

We hopped a taxi, which costs $4 for rides all day. We glimpsed landmark buildings, crowded tour boats and the famously murky, green water of the Chicago River.

The boats are equipped with indoor covered seats as well as more scenic outdoor benches, which my kids preferred. On a sunny day, the ride is relaxing and breezy, there's even a bar for hardcore unwinding.

We wandered on the water taxi for 40 minutes until we decided to make a trip to Millennium Park, where we gaped at this crazy, whimsical sculpture. I think it symbolized our easygoing journey well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jorge Amado's Brazilian Brillance

There's a good reason why Brazilian author Jorge Amado's books have been adapted into countless TV shows, plays and films. All of his books pop with vivid imagery, excitement and humor. And of course, because we're dealing with Brazilian culture here, heaping doses of sensuality seep through the pages. As I explained in an earlier post about Amado, he was the author most recommended to me when I was in Brazil. I devoured his most famous novel, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon but I couldn't stop there. Once you visit Bahia, you never want to leave so I read Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands next.

The title and the cover give helpful hints about the book's tone. Yes, we're exploring a woman's relationship with her two husbands and yes it's a little kinky. Dona Flor is a classic, voluptuous beauty who turns down her shrewish mother's attempts to set her up in a profitable marriage and marries the man she loves. That would be Vadinho, a smooth, gambling, whorish, rogue who knows how to melt her reserve. Fittingly, Vadinho perishes in the middle of a carnaval procession, gussied up in the costume of a Bahian market woman. Dona flor mourns for years, until a respectful and gallant pharmacist, Dr. Teodoro Madueria, marries her and sweeps her into the rarefied life of a a society matron. Flor is content except for one thing. Teodoro is rather clinical in bed. It never occurs to her that she might find alternatives until Vadinho's ghost appears, bold and half-clothed, he's ready to alleviate her frustrations.

This 622-page novel not only paints the colorful details of 1940s Brazilian life but it unveils such witty and lively characters that you always want to be in their company. Vadinho embodies the Latin lover archetype, sexy and self-centered, with a gift for charming everybody except Flor's mother. There's Pelancchi, the gambling house don and "child of Calabria" who can't understand how Vadinho's friends suddenly rack up unheard of amounts. He worries that he has been cursed and he has, by Vadhino's antics. Dionisia is a lovely candomble priestess whom Flor falsely suspects of bearing Vadhino's child after his death. The specifics of Bahian life also leap off the page, from the spicy cuisine, to capoeira matches, to the intricate candomble(African-based religion incorporated into Brazilian culture) rituals, you get a rich sense of the culture.

Filled with magic realism and humor, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a Brazilian classic that easily overcomes cultural barriers. The 1978 film starring Sonia Braga in in my Netflix queque so I will be extending my Bahia stay.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Drive Out Hunger Tour

Let them eat cake. That's what Marie Antoinette supposedly advised for feeding hungry masses but in this case, gobbling down cake (specifically red velvet cheese) will actually help supply food for the hungry. The Cheesecake Factory has joined Feeding America for the Drive Out Hunger Tour.
September is hunger action month and throughout the month the program will tour 30 cities in 30 days, hosting an event each day to collect cans of soup benefiting the local food bank. If you can't make it on the tour day, head to your local Cheesecake Factory and donate 2 cans of soup on September 30. If you order from the ginormous menu, 10% of the check will be donated to the local food bank. For each slice of Stefanie's ultimate red velvet cake cheesecake sold, the Cheesecake Factory will donate a quarter to Feeding America. 1 out of 8 Americans is hungry or forced to skip meals regularly. Hunger is a reality everywhere, from cities, to rural areas, to the suburbs. Any donation can make a difference. For people not living in the U.S., look in your own backyard for opportunities to help the hungry. They are everywhere.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Iranian Radiance

Last week, Iran appointed the first woman cabinet member since the start of the Islamic Republic 30 years ago. Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi was approved as health minister, supplying a huge dose of hope for women's rights in Iran. Coincidentally, I recently discovered this antique Persian necklace at my local antique shop. Persia was what Iran was called before 1936. Jewelry played a huge part of the ancient culture and still does. This silver necklace displays turquoise and carnelian beads most likely used to ward off evil. Although this necklace is about 100-years-old, ethnic pieces like these fill 2009 trend reports. Now whenever I wear it, I think of the women of Iran and their fight for equality.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Buju Banton, Dancehall and Homophobia

I've been delving into a lot of frustrating discussions over the last week. On August 28, Live Nation and AEG cancelled a series of shows for dancehall icon Buju Banton, according to the LA Times. The cancellations were a result of pressure from The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. The organization labels Banton a "rabidly anti-gay reggae singer" and a "murder music singer." I find both descriptions inaccurate and insultingly simplistic. Banton brilliantly creates heartfelt, socially aware music that reflects the struggles and concerns of Jamaican culture. The majority of his 21-year career has been spent uplifting and encouraging his listeners. He is being attacked for one song that he wrote when he was 15-years-old. Banton is now 36. My frustration is with the many Americans, some very good friends, who don't understand that this is a much deeper concern than one anti-gay song. This involves understanding Jamaican culture and a strongly entrenched issue that will not go away by boycotting artists.

Buju Banton's "Boom Bye Bye" is probably the most recognizable dancehall song for people who don't know dancehall. For the record, dancehall is a sub genre of reggae, defined by bass-heavy, electronic rhythms and rapping done mostly in Jamaican patois. Dancehall is the first cousin and forerunner of American hip hop, providing a voice and vehicle for disaffected youth. The genre has never attracted the following that roots reggae enjoys because it sounds agressive and confrontational where roots reggae is laid-back and melodic. For a short period in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a big push for dancehall crossover to an American audience. Maxi Priest and Shabba Ranks scored a huge hit with "Housecall", Shaggy and Patra were all over MTV and record labels rushed to sign up and coming Jamaican dancehall performers. In 1992, Buju blazed through Jamaican singles charts and surpassed Bob Marley's record for amassing the most number one singles in a year. Mercury signed Banton in 1993, hoping his politically-charged Voice of Jamaica would continue dancehall's American popularity. Unfortunately, this was the point that the American public got wind of "Boom Bye Bye," which had been re-released in Jamaica in 1992. The translated patois lyrics and the horrifying details of shooting and pouring acid over gay men were exposed. The public outcry cut short any crossover potential.

In the meantime, dancehall became embroiled in violent and misogynistic lyrics. Unprecedented violence and drugs seeped into Jamaica. Buju Banton emerged three years later with a genre-defining album that analyzed and reflected on the state of Jamaican society. That album,Til Shiloh , was released in 1995. I saw Buju Banton perform for the first time shortly after that. As a music critic, I have witnessed hundreds of concerts over the years but I will never, ever, forget that one. Buju Banton had supposedly converted to Rastafarianism, which is standard practice for dancehall stars coping with any kind of trouble. I was skeptical and unimpressed by his gravelly-voice and one-dimensional songs he had produced until that point. He appeared in a suit, with newly sprouted locks. Previously noted for his booming rapping or toasts, he half sang and half rapped in a newly formed "singjay" style. He sang about freedom and salvation, Jah and forgiveness. And he performed clutching a Coptic cross the entire hour-long performance. I have been a fan ever since.

I have also attended no less than six Buju Banton concerts over as many years. I have never heard him sing "Boom Bye Bye" or utter any hateful, violent or misogynistic word. I would never support any artist who did. But Buju is being attacked for a song that he wrote over 15 years ago, when he was another kind of person. He is also being held accountable for a culture that he reflects but did not create. Homosexuality is illegal in Jamaica. Jamaican society like most of the Caribbean, is stridently Christian. Being gay is regarded as an unforgivable sin and gays and lesbians are routinely beaten, attacked and killed for it. Acclaimed Jamaican poet and writer Staceyann Chinn graphically describes the horrors of being lesbian in Jamaica in her harrowing memoir The Other Side of Paradise. I believe that the energy spent protesting artists who perform anti-gay songs would be more productive addressing the core issue. But that would require learning about the culture, talking to the people and exploring how to tackle the issue at its church-based root. I also believe that most of the protesters really aren't interested in going that far. They want to shut down anybody that they believe is anti-gay. This has lead to censorship charges from Jamaican fans and Facebook groups supporting Banton and criticizing gays and lesbians. It's created more resentment and I fear, more antagonism towards the gay community. In an open leader to the public, Banton's record label has announced 30 confirmed shows despite the cancellations. It also voices frustration with boycotts and protests for 17 years over one song that he does not perform anymore.

I have heard from South Florida friends who insist that Banton still performs the song in response to expectations from heavily-Caribbean crowds. Even if he does, it just goes back to the core issue that has yet to be addressed. You can try to silence an artist for creating offensive art but the beliefs that inform the art live on until they are examined.

This is a video of one of Buju Banton's most evocative songs, "Untold Stories." It speaks of this being "A competitive world for low budget people/spending a dime while earning a nickle" and encourages those who struggle not to give up. The struggle continues and "goes on and on, the full has never been told." I hope that one day soon, it will.

Buju Banton Untold Stories- Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Summer In the (Chi) City

I admit it. I'm spoiled. My idea of a beach involves pristine, pearly sand and sun-dappled, turquoise waves. That means Chicago beaches do not qualify. But we were tormented with a cool, dreary summer over the last three months so when a hot, 88-degree, day popped up I had to grab it. I gathered up my best friend who's the ultimate Bajan beach bunny, packed up the kids and headed to Montrose beach. If the water looks murky in the photo above, that's because it is. I typically don't venture out into the Chicago side of Lake Michigan because the toxic levels rival only Chernobyl. But I was dragged out by my gang of bossy kids. My expression reflects the joy I felt in wading in the arctic cold lake.

My toes, painted a neon banana yellow, managed to thaw once I was permitted to lounge under the sun.

The lounging didn't last very long as I discovered the range of food offered at the beach. After enjoying my favorite coco paleta, I was covered in streams of coconut drippings but I wasn't about to go back into that water. Especially after I spied the creative, portable taco stand created by the vendor above. He served up the best sizzling steak tacos, so tasty that my persnickety pre-teen downed 8 of them.

Then there was the cotton candy. Who doesn't love sugar on a hot, sticky day? I also spied sno cones, fruit bowls, popcorn, churros and corn on the cob. We had lugged sandwiches and corn on the cob for our lunch, not realizing that a day at the beach equals a non-stop picnic.

We lingered until the sun went down. Then we strolled home, stopping to revel in this wildflower preserve across the street from the beach. It's not St.Lucia but on that rare cloudless day, Montrose Beach supplied enough to create a fun day in the Chicago sun.