It was early Saturday evening in the heart of Mandeville, Jamaica and we could already hear the distant din of the market from the lobby of our downtown hotel.
A group of us from Niagara had just spent a week soaking in the sun and the warmth of our many friends who live on the south coast of Jamaica. Now we continued our travels across the island to visit our neighbours from the farms back home. Our group split up for the evening and Jodie Godwin and I headed out on foot to immerse ourselves in the local culture.
Located on a plateau at 2,000 feet, the temperatures in this centuries-old city are pleasant all year and that night was no exception. As soon as we headed down the street we heard exuberant sounds of the band warming up next door at the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Navigating past the long lineups at the corner KFC we were suddenly in the thick of the crowds.
Traffic was a slow crawl three lanes deep with pedestrians and motorcycles weaving in and out, horns blaring. Cars with speakers mounted on the roof were blocked in the traffic jam, bass rhythms pounding out loud enough to loosen the fillings in
In the park across the street a raspy-voiced preacher harangued the crowd with dire warnings of God’s wrath. A few 100 feet away a band was stacking a massive sound system in preparation for a late night sound clash, an event we were able
to enjoy from the comfort of our hotel way into the wee hours.
The Mandeville market was the picture of fortification, rising above white-washed stone walls dating back to the early 1800s. A sea of tarps rippling overhead cast the outdoor market vendors in a brilliant blue hue.
They were busy dismantling their stalls and packing up unsold produce at the end of a long day, a scene replayed every Saturday for the past 200 years. Exhaustion lined their faces, having been up since the early hours of the morning.
Men struggled to steer pushcarts heavily laden with plantains, carrots, yams and cabbage as they inched their way down the crowded ramp from the market and
onto the street, while tantalizing wafts of barbecued jerk chicken and pork drifted overhead.
As was our custom on our previous visits to Mandeville, Jodie and I decided to take our time in the crowds. Above the shouts and din of the market I thought I heard my name being called out. I looked around but couldn’t see a familiar face in the falling dark.
While weaving my way through the crowd, I suddenly felt two hands clamp down on my shoulders, stopping me in my tracks. There was no sense of fear, only expectation.
I instantly recognized Mark, our good friend from Thwaites farm back home.
People stepped back in surprise as we laughed and exchanged hugs.
“This is a good feeling Jane. It’s a wonderful feeling Jodie. My soul is overwhelmed. My, my, my,” he exclaimed joyfully. He pointed back to his sister’s produce stand a good distance away where he had first spotted me.
“I told my sister, ‘that should be Jane,’” he called back as he raced off through the taxis and burst through the crowd. He had no idea we were in Jamaica and was beyond excited.
We made our way to his sister’s stall where we were introduced to neighbouring vendors and curious bystanders.
“These are my Canadian friends, these are my Canadian mothers. My soul is overwhelmed,” he repeated, laughing so hard, still incredulous at his good fortune.
We made our way to a nearby grocery store to surprise his wife and children where they were shopping. Jodie had visited them at their home a few years earlier, making this unexpected visit even sweeter.
Jodie and I have travelled together to Jamaica six times to visit our neighbours from the farms, joined by friends and family on the last four trips. It was always the highlight of our travels when we made those unexpected connections.
What have I learned through these adventures in community?
I’ve learned that when a person is called by name it means they are no longer invisible. They are no longer a statistic lost in a massive, expendable labour force.
When we are called by our names the labels which have been imposed lose their power to define us. Barriers can be transformed into bridges of understanding. We begin to appreciate the unique gifts we all possess and long to share.
I have learned the lost art of being neighbourly can be rekindled. It is an exercise in living with intention, and paying attention.
At home, a simple ‘Welcome back, glad to see you’ and a handshake takes five seconds of our time at the grocery store or bank. We can scribble notes to help us remember.
We will make plenty of mistakes and learn to laugh at our attempts as we fumble our way toward a greater sense of community.
This week I dropped off some new winter coats to three men who had arrived the day before, their first time in Canada. I asked the first young man his name and where he was from back home.
We chatted a bit about the town he was from as I had visited it numerous times. I made notes, turned around and asked the same person the same questions, not recognizing him from our conversation just seconds earlier. He looked at me quizzically and repeated his name.
I could see the guys giggling behind him at the lunch table. I still have to laugh thinking about it. This will happen more times than I can count in the coming months but in the trying I also get to experience the grace they extend, over and over.
The view in Jamaica was breathtaking in every direction as Jodie, her daughter Leah and I hiked up the rugged road to the summit of Juan Del Bolas Mountain in the parish of St. Catherine.
In one direction we could view the sparkling waters along the rugged southern coastline almost 25 kilometres away. We heard a scuffle of boots on loose rocks and turned to see a man in his 60s appear through the brush on the steep slope below us.
His eyes widened with surprise to meet strangers in this isolated mountain peak. He shook our hands, extending a warm welcome to his neighbourhood. He was just returning from a hard day’s work in his terraced yam fields.
We introduced ourselves and he burst out laughing when we told him where we were from.
“Why I know that place very well. I worked for Abe Epp for many, many years. That’s my house down there, built with Niagara peaches.” With his machete he proudly pointed out his shell pink house in a tall stand of feathery bamboo on the ridge below us.
He nodded to me. “I passed your place every day all those years. It’s right round the corner from the packing barn.”
The moment of four lives intersecting at the top of a mountain, so very far away from home, packs an emotional punch difficult to describe. For the next 30 minutes we talked with our former neighbour, sharing stories of mutual friends from back home.
Jodie asked for his name.
“Denford Thomas,” he replied, this time gripping her hand like an old friend, reluctant to let go.
She turned toward the edge of the precipice and cupping her hands yelled “Denford Thomas,” and we listened to the echo reverberating across the ridge and his home, where his wife was preparing dinner.
“Denford Thomas,” she called one more time, and then declared, “There, now I will never forget your name.”
Together we walked away from the precipice and into the falling dark, humbled and transformed by the power of human connection.