Life begins at forty … it’s been said. I wonder if that’s true though. Maybe it was coined by a middle-aged writer in the throes of the proverbial crisis, desperately in need of a pick-me-up. But whatever the origin or the motivation, in my case at least, I’ve taken a symbolic step toward that rebirth.
A shave and a cruise. That’s what I did for my birthday. I’m a new man now … locks chopped and bald as a baby. That Jamaican guy at my gym told me I’d go crazy, but he was wrong. So wrong. I’ve never felt so liberated. Although I loved my locks, the act of cutting them for my fortieth was like sloughing off an old skin, bursting through shiny, bright, and new. Almost like that hair, which carried a decade of my life in its wooly mass, symbolized baggage that I needed to put down, to let go off. And that’s what it felt like too, as if this huge sack that had been tied to my head dragging on the ground behind me—filled with love letters and eulogies, postcards and old lovers underwear—suddenly plopped to ground so I could walk away, my head could breathe again, turn and survey my landscape freely again. I made an event out of this whole transformation, this whole big 4-0 thing, by going on a cruise to commemorate it … and to tan a dome which hadn’t seen sun since ‘94. I hired photographer and friend Beth Achenbach to shoot the process.
But the cruise part of this experience was an adventure. It was an eye-opener too, in some ways, or maybe I just need to get out more. Cruises are great. Everyone is so accommodating, the food is plentiful and exquisite, but some extremely aggressive entrepreneurs in Jamaica made me see a darker side of the brief land excursions—of which, Ocho Rios was the last of three.
Cozumel was the first. The spate of intense storms this season (Katrina and her sisters) left the little island off the Mexican coast devastated. The huge concrete piers where previous cruise visitors debarked are gone. Well, not gone actually, just scattered about like 5 ton dominoes protruding from the disconcertingly calm, blue water. It was a spine-chilling reminder that Mother Nature is not to be fucked with. And the ominous, rapidly graying skies that day didn’t help comfort me. We had to take small ‘tender’ boats to a temporary wooden pier, which spilled into an oasis of beauty—no doubt hastily constructed—where the locals hawked their wares. J and I, along with four of our friends, rented an SUV and wandered the island on our own. Outside of the tourist area and its upscale stores, Cozumel is very poor. Of the six of us, only one was fluent in Spanish … which came in handy after stumbling into a section of town where the devastation was painfully obvious, poverty and struggle hovered in the air like gas. And I felt like a voyeur watching residents salvaging their lives through the tinted windows of our air-conditioned rental, and they returned our stares in a way that made me lock the door again. Still, we stopped and asked for directions to the ancient ruins we were looking for—I forget the name—found them, and while we explored that vast overgrown city from long ago … the skies turned black. As we headed back toward the SUV, rain suddenly came down in sheets. Soon the crumbling structures—where a civilization once believed storms meant God was pissed—ran with rivers of red mud, turning our intrepid troupe into a drenched and splattered, almost tribal mob … slipping and sliding up and down stone steps, shouting—This way … No, THIS way—lost amidst acres of ruins. That’s when, oddly enough, I noticed that I was enjoying the patter of tropical rain on my newly bald head. Believe it or not, it was just the type of thing I love … impromptu chaos in most unlikely circumstances. Keep all your touristy traps and their associated crap tee-shirts and ashtrays … I wanna eat local delicacies not Big Macs, I wanna get down with the natives, slosh through their red mud, and really connect with a place. J and I got separated during the melee, and after a time came upon a large man with an even larger machete … chopping something, in spite of the downpour. We had a deadline to make it back to the ship, it would leave us in a heartbeat, and so we’d grown a little frantic. The man looked over at us, his long hair and beard plastered to his body, and with the machete … he waved us closer. We silently declined by running the other way. News coverage would be scarce if we vanished, ‘cause neither one of us looked a damn bit like Natalee Holloway. Eventually, we found our troupe … and the troupe found the ship.
Grand Cayman was next, surprising untouched by the storms. Ahhhh …. If Heaven was an island, this would be it … and I hear they have really cool banking laws too (if only I had a suitcase fulla drug-money). J and I lost our troupe that day, and I was feeling the 151 Pina Coladas I’d been having my way with for three days aboard ship. For that reason, we didn’t wander or look for adventure or chaos. In search of serenity, we joined some shipmates on this power catamaran headed to a place called Stingray City. After weaving past the most tranquil real estate I’ve ever seen, and at least an hour out to sea, we arrived at a sand bar in the middle of nowhere … where it was shallow enough to get out and stand. Through the sparkling water, the unmistakable winged shapes could be seen, gliding like aquatic stealth bombers. The captain’s sun-kissed catamaran boy—who’d been a pleasant sight climbing about performing his nautical duties with nimbleness—hurled the anchor overboard, and then pulled us slowly toward our destination, his back and thigh muscles flexing to our delight. Soon we were in the water, surrounded by them, being bumped and nudged for food. Catamaran boy caught one as big as a card table, cradled its head just above water … and it’s mouth on the underside made sucking sounds which creeped me out. But it was beautiful, touching them, snorkeling over them, feeding them. I later found out that those Stingrays do nothing but wait to be fed and fondled at that sandbar. They’ve become so domesticated by our handouts that they allowed their own majestic hunting skills to wither from memory. If we didn’t feed them they’d die. How cool and fucked-up is that? How does a Stingray feel? If pictures aren't worth a thousand words, try these: 100 pounds of liver, writhing in your hand. After a soothing day of snorkeling with rays … we made our way back to town. Being a seriously moneyed locale, it was peppered with fine jewelry stores, and I quickly fell in love with the multi-colored Canadian gemstone Ammolite. Once again, I thought of that suitcase fulla money as I handed the ring back to the saleslady and said, ‘I'll have to think about it.’ I left Grand Cayman with sun-burnt shoulders, memories of lazy Stingrays with noisy mouths and leathery skin … and without an expensive pinky-ring. But I was proud that i'd resisted the temptation to max out a card … because after all, it was my birthday.
What can I say about Ja-mai-ca? Its notorious homophobia—it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me—isn’t the Devil incarnate that I once believed. And if it is, we’ve got that same Red Bastard preaching in our churches and breaking bread with our President … so who are we to talk? But that’s another post for a stronger day. Our troupe remained intact that excursion. None of us wanted to walk the famous Dunn’s River Falls like every other tourist in Ocho Rios, so we made arrangements with a van driver to show us the falls and other sites without paying admission. It was a ‘Yo … hook a brutha up’ type of deal. Seemed cool enough. His assistant was a charismatic young man named Omar who said ‘Yeah-mon’ a lot, with a wink and a smile, who's good looks and impish charm were a warm introduction to an island full of pretty young black men. We climbed a stairway cut into the side of a cliff, which opened out onto a veranda with a spectacular view of the falls and its hand-holding chain of tourists. No one else was there, except a few locals working a gift table off to the side. As I stood at the railing lost in the sight and sounds of crashing water, the air around me moist and intoxicating, another charming, chiseled young man with strong lips and exotic eyes slipped next to me. He asked my name and where I was from, and then welcomed me to Jamaica with this wooden statuette—which resembled a tiny totem pole—onto which he quickly carved my name. Your ‘wel-come gift’, he said, and sensing my hesitation he added, ‘its free, take it.’ Mama didn’t raise no fool. She did raise, however, a hot-blooded homosexual who’d been on the verge of blushing since Omar’s first ‘yeah-mon.’ So this supple new welcoming committee of one had a head start in the charming his way into my pants (pocket) department. And as he cupped the gift into my hand, smiling with his eyes and licking the lips I couldn’t stop staring at … I waited for the other shoe to fall. I knew it would cost something. I also knew I might not be able to say no to that pretty young man who was still shaking my hand. He gestured with his chin to my friend Michele, ‘Dat your la-dy, mon?’ If I’d been home and a pretty young man asked that question, I’d assume he was testing the waters. Then I’d make it clear by replying, ‘Why would I want one of those?’ And I had half-jokingly planned to do some overtly homosexual things in Jamaica, believing that as long as I stayed close to the ship … I could always beat a hasty retreat. Yeah. I know. Must be my need for random pandemonium. But I had no idea where the ship was, and all nonsensical notions of goading the homophobic beast disappeared. ‘Yeah … she is.’ I replied … though my eyes slipped into his opened shirt, down his chest and over his ebony washboard, and drooled that I was a big ol’ liar. Maybe it was the faint rainbow that hovered over the falls behind him, or maybe it was the way he shifted his weight from left to right, while hooking a thumb in his waistband … whatever, I was hooked and wondered if coming back to Jamaica was in my future. Later, after asking her name and telling me about his cousins who live in Newark … my Jamaican guy produced another little totem with Michele hastily scrawled and announced, ‘Give dis to your la-dy, my friend from Jer-zee.’ He cupped my hands again with two totems now—giving them a little pat to consummate our new friendship—while I smiled and wondered how big his dick was. ‘Most people’, he continued, ‘… pay me for-ty, but I’ll give it to you for twen-ty,’ dropping that other shoe almost gingerly with that accent and sensual charm of his. But not gingerly enough. ‘No. I don’t want this one. I’ll keep the free one though.’ I watched him squirm. Then he informed me that I had to take the other one ‘cause he’d already put her name on it. But I was adamant. ‘No. I didn’t ask you to do that.’ That’s when he got agitated and the tension rose around us. For the first time I glanced around and noticed that J was huddled with another salesman in the middle of his own little totem drama. The others had already seen it, snapped pictures and descended back down to the Omar and the van below. ‘Look’, my guy said, his smile no longer sweet, ‘fine, just gimme fif-teen if you’re gon' be cheap about it.’ It wasn’t a request. I gave him back his little statues, ‘You keep both of ‘em.’ Then I went over and assisted J with his dilemma and we escaped to the van. Nobody was happy about our first stop.
Omar then said he would take us to a famous shopping area where he’d drop us off and come back to pick us up in an hour. We said fine. But we quickly reneged on the deal when he insisted we pay up front. Michele said something to Omar about being from Harlem not Nebraska, but he laughed it off and took us to a new destination—a scenic drive through the rain-forest where we’d stop and take more pictures. First off … not only are the roads narrow and winding, but they drive on the wrong damn side. And fast. Really fast. Speeding around corners, we’d look directly into the eyes of other horrified tourists flying the other way. Michele asked Omar if they had many accidents on that road. ‘Oh, lots and lots of dem … yeah-mon.’ I never wanted to be back on the ship more. After passing numerous picturesque spots, we pulled over to get out and take pictures. And it’s also where I began to notice a pattern … everywhere we stopped, someone was waiting to sell us something. Aggressively. After ten minutes of defending the virtues of our wallets, we were off again, barreling down the mountain like the Jamaican bobsled team. Next stop, a tour of a pottery factory. By this time, I was completely over the Jamaican charm I’d experienced so far, and didn’t really wanna see a damn pottery factory. But I didn’t make waves. As the beautiful Jamaican landscape soothed my discontent, I considered that maybe the whole thing was cruise related. Maybe they were so used to cruise ships coming, that they’ve become adept at commandeering us passengers like brainless cattle, and herding us along predetermined routes designed to milk us like the cash cows we are. And I was sure Omar had an arrangement with the people at the specific places he stopped. This was no more apparent than at WassiArt-Pottery Works & Factory Tour. After introducing us to the manager, Omar pulled her to the side and had a hushed talk with her. Then he said he’d be back, and left us in her care. The tour turned out to be better than I expected. It detailed the entire process of making elaborate handcrafted pottery … from a shapeless lump of clay to a true work of art. Everywhere we watched pretty young men, one after another, spinning the clay, carving and painting intricate designs, and our host introduced us to everyone of them. They smiled warmly, each with a poster on the wall of a different slutty, big-bootied, half-naked black woman above their heads. I wondered why the manager, a big-bootied black woman herself, allowed it? Lots of pretty boyz there though … boyz boyz artsy boyz, who must be super-straight ... at all cost. The tour ended in, what else, a pottery outlet store where I ended up buying more souvenirs than in any other place the whole vacation. Yeah. Moo. The country I’ve always said I’d never spend a dime in, in a few hours, seduced and made me its bitch. Intoxicated by its vibe now … I’d gone from aroused to pissed to aroused again. Finally, I just admitted to myself that the whole aggression thing was kinda turning me on. And now I even wanna go back, which scares me a little. I’m so apt to get into trouble. But I’ll think about that later … right now, I’m still getting used to being 40 and bald.
Here's my favorite shot from the cruise. Our formal night. This is what my Prom picture should've looked like. We were a big hit that night, J had a ball ... but my newly 40 ass had a helluva time staying up past midnight. **sigh**
View complete photo album of the trip here.