Potemkin Jamaica

I once wrote a satire “Potemkin Sitka.”  I proposed we build an artificial Sitka on a nearby island for tourists to visit.  That way the chains like Diamonds International could own a piece of the town, it could attract the cruise ship visitors without clogging up our town and in the winter the shops in Potemkin Sitka would close leaving the ones in real Sitka open, selling useful things like hardware. 

Jamaica has come close to doing that by building the Port of Falmouth.  Falmouth, the real town, was built in the last half of the 18th Century, in a style called “Jamaican Georgian”, with touches of Dublin mixed with New Orleans, Baggot Square with balconies.  It was an important sugar processing and shipping port and center of slavery.  It began its decline when the British Empire banned the slave trade.  It looks a little run down and seedy with some mold on the buildings.  Just as it should in a tropical climate.  The Sherwin Williams store could have used some of its own product. 

The Potemkin port is also built in the “Jamaican Georgian” style with fresh paint and no mold stains.  The State Department recently moved Jamaica to “level 3, avoid unnecessary travel” because of crime against visitors.  Some of our cruise mates on the message boards wondered if we would cancel our call to Falmouth.  But travelers who had been there assured them that they could stay in the closed in port and be perfectly safe, eat jerk chicken, drink beer and buy crafts and souvenirs.  That’s all true, and this Faux Falmouth has the added advantage of two bandstands alternating between Reggae, Ska, dancehall and rhythmic drumming.  The music was authentic, matching the sounds coming from shops and blasting from cars in the real Falmouth.  The crafts, perhaps, not so much. I heard one woman bargaining in the crafts market cry.  “Wait, this says made in the USA, I want Jamaican stuff.”  In Faux Falmouth all the streets are walking streets, no need to close off real streets (but it turns out they do.)

We needed to get outside the wire, so to speak, to shop for tools and supplies to rebuild our collapsed shelving units.  We also needed to replace other stuff from our lost baggage.  This required a hardware store.  We left the gates and were approached by a guy with “ask me” written on a ping-pong paddle.  I asked him about a hardware store and he wanted to take us on a walking tour that would include a hardware store.  We declined, I said;  “Look, I get it, it’s how you make your living, I used to do walking tours in a cruise ship town, but you do have a paddle that says ‘ask me’ so I’m asking.”

He smiled, pointed and said, “10 minutes, across from a new metal roofed building.”  I tipped him but figured 10 minutes really meant 15 the way we walked, but he judged our gait correctly (he WAS a pro).  After walking 1o minutes through the town’s industrial section, away from the real downtown, past an historic old forge, along the Falmouth equivalent of Katlian Street, past all sorts of music posters, we were in front of “Fisherman’s and Diver’s Paradise and Hardware Limited.” 

It’s more of a hardware fortress than a store with grates over the windows.  There was room for about three people in front of the counter.  It was a fully clerked store, liked the one my great grandfather ran three quarters of a century ago, except the clerk stood behind a sturdy wire mesh.  She got us what we needed, we exchanged money for goods through a portal in the mesh, and on the way out an imposing woman sitting on a stool just outside the door checked the purchase and stamped the receipt.

Our next stop took us past the “Universal Jesus is Lord” church, which seemed to double as beer warehouse, to a pharmacy.  Our walkabout bag included our first aid kit and COVID tests.  The pharmacy had some things on the shelves for shoppers to pick but mostly their wares were behind one of two counters.  The clerk got you what you needed.  You could not buy a box of band aids.  You bought individual band aids, only as many as you need. 

The pharmacy brought us back to the “Jamaican Georgian” section of town and after walking down streets named Petticoat Lane and Duke Street in a pleasant 82 degree heat, we decided to do what we enjoy most in new towns, sitting in the town square and watching the show.  There are two town squares, Memorial Square in front of the courthouse, where there is a cross dedicated to those who gave their lives for “King and Country” in that order, and Water Square, the commercial center.  Water square a triangle.

Memorial Square has several churches but most of the action is watching cab drivers hustle business and people getting marriage licenses.  Water Square still had holiday decorations wrapped around the palm trees and a decorated Christmas pine in one corner of the triangle.  The streets around the triangle are closed off to traffic allowing the vibrant street life to spill out of the square.  There were all sorts of business activities going on to the beat of dancehall and reggae.  A row of people sat on a garden wall eating their lunches in the shade of palm trees, the faint tang of jerk chicken hung around the wall.  I asked if I could join a group while Suzi, was shopping.  A lady smiled moved over on the wall and I sat down.  A “vegan fruit” vendor worked across from us and a man was selling sunscreen and towels. They were Holland America beach towels.  I didn’t ask where he got them.

After about three hours my feet got hot.  I made the mistake of wearing running shoes and socks rather than sandals, so we headed back inside the wire to Faux Falmouth.  The bandstands were still going so Suzi had a coke with real sugar and not corn syrup and I had a Red Stripe beer.  I normally do not like beer but at about 80 degrees it begins to gain in appeal.  It was the perfect thirst quencher.

With the beat still going we decided to walk through the crafts market set up for the tourists where there was a mix of strange things, like penguin statues, lots of references to pot and some politically incorrect placards.  There were also Santa statues on clearance.  I bought a Jamacia lanyard for my cruise key card.  The lanyard I had packed was, of course, in our missing luggage.

Back on the ship Suzi got the shelving units up, all our meds are stowed away along with my CPAP water and the bottles of booze that the cruise line gave us for sailing with them.  I decided to go for a swim on the back deck which was within earshot of the bandstands.  But by then the pool bar was having happy hour and their music almost drowned out the Jamaican beat.  I heard the sounds of Jersey, Frankie Vali who is still “Working my way back to you, babe” with the undertone of ska.

Goodnight Falmouth

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