Motorcycle Diaries / Jamaica: "The Conductor"



Behind the rising taxes and high murder rates of Jamaica, how are Kingston's most visible characters living?

Featuring:
Giggz: The "Conductah"
Romain: The "Pullah"
Alton Simmons: The "Ownah"

Monday, Halfway Tree: Giggz and Romain

It's just the three of us. It's 10 a.m. on a blazing hot Monday, and we're hiding from the sun in the park next to Jamaica's biggest bus depot, Halfway Tree. The air is thick, and the scent of jerk chicken interlaces easily with the ever-lingering smell of ganja.

Giggz, 23, cups his hand around his mouth, and, in between giggles, whispers to his friend, Romain, 18. "Get the banana!" pointing at the poor chap sitting next to us, who is calmly unpeeling his lunch. Romain obliges and shoots the fruit, capturing it perfectly on my 35-millimeter camera.

I had given the camera to Romain for about an hour, as I sat back and watched, waiting to see what he could get. He was more familiar with the people and area; and was not shy at all. He and Giggz ran around Nelson Mandela Park, hunting down new prey, trying to find the perfect subjects.

"Ay! You! You 'ave fi let mi tek yuh picture! We doing a profile!" Giggz would then yell proudly, "We doing a profile on me!" And indeed, I was writing a profile: On Giggz the bus conductor, and on how he is trying to live happily, and safely, in a place called Jamaica.

The two avoid the police and snap shots every few minutes from all different angles. Their friends. Fruit. Fences. Buses. It's how the whole of Kingston ended up on the camera: The blue shirt-donned conductor with aviator glasses and a spliff dangling from his mouth; the old woman in the red, oversized shirt, a country-style handkerchief atop her head; the big-breasted girl -- one of Romain's first pictures.

"Nice camera," he says after this one.

The only person who gave them any trouble was someone who they referred to as an excited 'Rasta man,' who stormed after Romain and implored him to erase his picture off the camera. "I'ma artist! Yah no? If you wan tek mi picture, you gwaan fi 'ave fi pay mi! Me 'ave fi protect my image, because me a musical artist." Romain agrees, but is slightly annoyed. It had taken forever to get a good picture of a Rasta man.

Romain's Jamaica has become a different, interesting place as of late. A Tupac/Biggie-style feud had already turned the island upside down, making a happy, bright day like this seem necessary. Mavado, a popular dancehall artist representing what's known as "Gully," a name given to the neighborhood he is from because of an actually gully in it, is supposedly feuding with Vybz Kartel, another musical artist. Kartel is from an area referred to as "Gaza," after the equally violent area in Palestine. Neither Mavado nor Kartel believe that they are to blame for the violence that has erupted over their feud. Instead, they proclaim that it is not serious, and that neighborhoods where violence has broken out, like Trenchtown and Coronation Market, have been violent for a long time.



The feud is political (politicians are notorious for bribing the youth). It is musical. It is silly (Vybz recently declined to attend Mavado's birthday party). It can be bloody. The police are involved; and they are not involved (according to them). Politicians have cried out against the violence, while the youths spray-paint "Gaza" or "Gully" on every bare surface they can find.

If you represent Gaza, you scream it proudly and display it on your shirt ("Gaza mi seh!"). If Gully, you're all for gully-side ("Gully mi seh!"). But, if the violence tires you, you scream for an alliance ("Alliance mi seh!"). Passing in front of the sprayed walls are the receptionists, schoolchildren and government workers, tiredly leaving lunch or going home early.

Christopher "Dudus" Coke, an alleged drug dealer or community leader (depending on whom you speak to), who was extradited to the United States was even protected by the Jamaican government here. And this is Kingston.

Loud dancehall pumps from nearby buses. It is 90-something degrees out and bright. Giggz and Romain are chill, relaxed for guys making only $30-$40 US per week. Romain takes a break from his photo session. He's never traveled before, and meditates on where he'd want to go.

"Austria."

Giggz corrects him, "Australia."

No, he says firmly, Austreeea. "Yea, I just like da name."

With a name he likes, he reasons, he'd be more excited to explore the country. He would also like to go to the Bahamas.

"Naw," interrupts Giggz. "Why?" Shaking his head. Lame.

"Ok, I want to go to Iraq! Me always dream about going to Iraq," he laughs and shakes his head. "One thing, I've never reached Iraq," Giggz says. He was supposed to go to Iraq, with an army, to "fiyah gunshot." But, he never got to go.

Romain reaches for the camera again. I've been shadowing Giggz for the past week. But, Giggz still turns to me, often, with questions.

"You still ain't give your name."

I thought I had. "My name? Shamira … Shamira Muhammad."

Giggz sits back. "Muhammad! You a Muslim," he laughs. He asks me to send him the pictures. They would be perfect for his Facebook page.

It took a little while for Giggz to open up like this.



Thursday, Halfway Tree: Meet Giggz (Gully Mi Seh!)

Giggz was up by 5 a.m. today. Today, like yesterday, and everyday before that, is a frenzy of activity. Dozens of multi-colored, palm-tree shaped air fresheners hang from the ceiling of his bus. He works on a coastal, one of the many privately owned smaller buses that careen around Jamaica. There are larger, commercial buses in Jamaica, with air conditioning, and a proper hat-wearing conductor, who collects the fares and hands out a ticket for your receipt.

This isn't that.

Ticket prices on both the commercial and coastal buses have gone up from $50 JA to $80 JA since January, a 60 percent increase. So, the smaller buses offer something different for your money. Giggz sees first-hand how the increase has affected the whole of the city.

The coastals, which should seat only 25, are now usually filled with a max of 70 people. The five rows are built for three people, but thanks to one pullout seat found on each row, two to three people squeeze in, however uncomfortably. At least seven people can also stand as the bus is going, with the conductor leaning out of the speeding bus, hoping to spot and attract potential riders. Each bus has its own name. This one is known as "Step Up."

On the side of the buses are painted pictures of Jamaica's most famous dancehall artists, Rasta signs, or even random, fantasy, big-booty gyals, drawn from the imagination of the artist. One bus has a bright blue Thomas the Tank Engine; and another, Winnie-the-Pooh, who looks significantly more menacing than usual. The route of the bus is listed on the back of it, and music pulses out dancehall as well as soft rock. Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton are as loved in Jamaica as Beenie Man and Busy Signal.

Not everyone can afford the increase. Giggz says that those who can't just have to talk to the conductor before the bus is on its way, and they can pay the old price of $50 JA, or about 55 cents.

Giggz runs up and down the side of the bus, banging on its back as he yells out to potential customers. "Downtown! Downtown! Go on, go on, go on!!" He bangs the bus again, three times, letting the driver know not to leave yet.

But, already, the police have shown up, lazily pulling up next to the bus with their motorcycles. Giggz and the driver get nervous. It's time to go, buses aren't allowed to remain idle for so long.

In April of 2010, before Coke was arrested, murder rates in Jamaica had already gone up from the previous year, with 466 dead already by March. The police had contributed at least 75 to that number, increasing their quota from in 2009 by 21; though by November of 2010, media outlets in Jamaica reported the rate to be declining.

Giggz and the driver have to at least hint that they are in the process of getting back on their route. The driver halfheartedly begins to pull the bus out of its line position. He communicates with Giggz by blowing the horn four times. Giggz hits the back of the bus. Not yet, not yet.

He runs next to the fence separating the street from the Mandela Park, along which men serenely watch the activities, distracted only by the occasional passing pretty girl. "Ay! Come 'ere bay-a-bee …"



Giggz points at potential customers. "Gwaan! Gwaan!" Two teenaged girls glance at the bus. He nods, and still yelling loudly, pushes them toward the bus. They cheerfully ascend, and Giggz celebrates his new clients with a giant smile and a skip to the back of the bus eager for more riders, as dancehall star Mavado sings woefully on the stereo of the bus, "Somebody tell me, why da Gully and da Gaza split …"

Street vendors stand outside the windows of the buses, and from time to time, go into them. They sell peanuts, candy and, even more popular, brightly colored sugary drinks in sealed plastic bags, which, affectionately referred to as "Kool-Aid" in the 'hoods of the United States, is known here simply as orange juice and fruit punch.

A song by dancehall craze, Major Lazer, comes on. The bold, climactic beat serves only to heighten the intensity of the bus. The next song, with an unknown name by an unknown artist, builds up slowly, as the bus gently eases its way into Kingston traffic. The driver picks up speed and begins to pummel past buildings, with one of the conductors hanging out of the bus -- the song having already reached its own frenzied pace.

Giggz, with pictures of bikini-clad girls hanging up behind him, begins to collect the fares from the customers, folding each bill in half long-ways. The $1000 bills go between the pinky and ring finger, the $500 between the ring and middle fingers, and so on. Coins, such as the $20 one, goes into the palm. A human cash register.

The fares are collected first, and the change given out after. How the conductors remember how much each customer is owed is astounding. Today, there are over 75 people on the bus. Giggz, holding on to the backs of seats, goes row-by-row, collecting fares. "Good afternoon, lovely passengers. Have your money out. Please and thank you."

Thursday, Coronation Market: Da Boys Dem Shy

Giggz is uncomfortable. Sitting on "Step Up," in between rounds, his bus is surrounded by Coronation Market. Old women across the street are peddling mangoes and watermelon. Two brothers, one at least 3, the other around 5, hold hands as they find their way around. Giggz watches neither, instead focusing on the microphone in his hand, slightly nervous, though he hides it well underneath his boisterous laughter. He begins his story like many do, describing his daily routine. He speaks in Patois, adding an "a" before verbs and a "dem" after nouns.
"First thing, I come out and just fill out the log book ina da mornin'," he says. "Put the drivah name, the conductah name. The time in ..." He wakes at 5, has a shower, smokes a spliff, calls the driver, and "see where we a 'ave to mobilize ourselves. [Then] head out pon de road, and from there we just carry the passengers dem, whole day." Too and from, Halfway Tree to Crossroad.

He laughs at a friend who tries to interrupt. "Shocka be-have yourself!" That done, his face returns to a slightly more serious position.

Giggz has been on this route for five months, since back when he first became a bus conductor. He's murky about his reasons for becoming one. Instead, he laughs when he finds out he and I are the same age, smiling as he says, "Probably someting a gwaan aftah de interview." He laughs especially hard at this one, looking around to catch the reaction of his friends. He won't reveal what he did before his conducting days either. "Boi … never had a job application before that," he says, laughing.

But, Giggz is obviously uncomfortable. He remains guarded. Maybe because, just at that moment, Shocka yells, "He was a TEEF!"

Laughing, but not really amused at being called a thief, Giggz replies, "No, neva was a teef, always staying in the ghetto, ya feel me? But, the bus is the only way out of the ghetto, apart from a 9-5, but differently still. It's a 9-5. Cuz you can nah go into the supermarket, and ask them to let you work. Cuz they nah goin' to let you work. Depends on the area still where you come from, you nah get no work. If you come from ghetto, you nah get no work."

Shocka interrupts again, "Give dem uptown address!"

Giggz laughs, nodding his head, "Right, if you don't have an uptown address, Shocka, you won't get a work, Boss!"

A conductor knocks on the bus. A passenger is about to get on. Almost time to leave. Giggz immediately begins to look tired, and slightly agitated. He lives in Central Kingston.

"184 Andrew, Boss. Any more question?"

Just one more: Where do you see yourself in five years?

"Boi … " he sighs, his voice changing for just a second, then quickly resuming its rapid Patois lilt. "Five years from now, me can't see myself. So me can't predict fi now." Giggz has been out of the country only once, to the UK, to London. It was OK.

Giggz now replies swiftly to questions. Yes, he's proud of his job. "If mi have a regulah 9-5, me nah go home with money in my pocket." The boss normally pays $3500-4000 JA a week ($37-$45 US). But Giggz gets a little extra from the boss. Maybe an extra $10-20 US.

"Yes," he laughs, proudly, "that's my working price." If he could do anything, Giggz would go back to school for electrical engineering. It's what he's interested in, not a family tradition, not something his dad did. "My fatha's a fahty man," he complains. "A fahty man and a teef," Shocka reiterates. But his mum is different. She's not a man or a thief, just hard-working and amazing. But she doesn't live here anymore. It's just Giggz alone.

Coronation Market to Halfway Tree

We zip back to Halfway Tree on the bus. The music is loud and people make their way onto the bus, along the route. An old rasta with locks hanging far down his back ... A woman with Bantu knots. We approach Crossroads, and there they are. The police again. Giggz and his crew quickly turn down their pulsing dancehall, much to the relief of the woman behind me. She sucks her teeth and sighs, "Thank you, Je-sus!" She had been so annoyed before. "They neva play da music so loud with the police dem."

The Office: Alton (Alliance Mi Seh!)

We're back at Halfway Tree and Giggz stays on "Step Up," collecting more passengers for the trip back down to Coronation Market. I walk to the office where his bus is run out of, and meet Alton Simmons, who is 19.

"Naw, I don't work [the bus], I own it!" he explains. "From 2000." Since he was 9? He nods his head. "Yea." And he likes it. His father first owned their buses, but now, he says, he's in charge. He went to Kingston Technical High School and finished, unlike many from Kingston. Looking like a short-haired, and more attractive, T-Pain, he comes from the seaside town of Portmore. He wears an "Alliance" T-shirt.

Peace, mi seh!

Alton smiles and throws his head back as he explains his daily routine. Rocking in his chair, and cradling the camera's microphone like an MC, he explains how he wakes up at 3:30, calls the driver, and then the conductor. He links with them by at least noon, arriving to collect the money they've received from passengers on the morning route. He goes to the five buses his family owns and collects from the bus conductor the money received from the passengers. He does this into the evening, usually making it to bed by 6 p.m.

Alton takes one day off from work a week. Sat'days alone. On this day, it's all about parties "wit 'im friend dem." He occasionally travels to New York. Brooklyn to be exact. What neighborhood? He bursts out laughing. "Good lawd! This chat, it dig!" Flatbush. Soon, Alton says casually, he'll be going to Florida.

His friend works diligently on Photoshop behind him, perfecting a flyer he's designed for an upcoming party. A no-clad model bends elegantly over a motorcycle, her assets enticing viewers to come to a beach party being thrown next month. His buses get held up at least every week. His dad was on one last week when it happened, though he managed to escape unharmed. I ask Alton what he would do if he was on a bus that got held up. "Nobody would even try!" he laughs. "Nobody a mess with mi!" Just then, his phone rings.

He looks at it warily and answers. "Mum … mum ..." he whines, "mi 'ave no credit!" He sighs again. "Ok, Mum! ... ok … but mi 'ave no credit!" His mother is undeterred by his dwindling cell-phone minutes. After speaking to him another minute or two, she is ready to get off the phone. Alton is only a little relieved, and sighs yet again, getting off the phone. "Ok, Mum." He looks at me, eager to continue the interview, no questions asked.

Alton acknowledges that he has it easier than most of his customers and employees. To be honest, he's not affected. He can travel. He can take days off. But, the increase in taxes were barely reported in the foreign media. And in a city as expensive as Kingston, where shantytowns share square footage with mansions, "A 'ole lotta people face it hard, yea? Everyting a raise! Deh kill all da people dem!"

Halfway Tree: The Real Giggz

Back to Giggz. Again in Halfway Tree. This time, underneath the open-air theatre in Nelson Mandela Park. Today, he's dressed in a sharp, plaid shirt with nice jeans and a red bandana on the side. He again describes routines, this time, even giving his birthday (January 9, this year he hung out with friends, smoke and drank). Twenty-three doesn't feel much different than 22. 'Cept, of course, he says, now he's old.

He likes his conductor job, which he got through a friend. He doesn't have to meticulously budget the $40 he receives every week. His brothers, sisters, mom, cousins, they all help him out. "I waste my money pon clothes and shoes." Other conductors, he says, save with each other, through partners, so by the end of the year, maybe they'd see a big enough gain to go to university. But not him and not now. With the raise in taxes for the buses, one that is 60 percent of the cost before, the conductors saw an increase of $1000 JA within a short time period -- a huge change.

Giggz wraps his bandana around his face. He's becoming shy, but seems more relaxed. Kingston wouldn't be the same without the coastals. Here, he can take any day off that he pleases. Young men and women are the face of these buses, the same ones who the Jamaican government are finding it hard to provide employment to. The buses are frequent and for the most part, the youth who work on them take their job quite seriously; meticulously remembering the change owed to what customer and magically finding seats for old or pregnant women who board their bus.

It becomes obvious in this conversation that Giggz has begun to trust me, and, finally, has begun to open up. He has dropped his cool demeanor that he'd worn previously for his friends. I notice that he has begun to say "yea" a lot more, and his "th" has been replaced with an f. Not "something," but "somefink." Almost entirely, his accent's changed. From Patois to a proper British accent.

"My mum don't live 'ere no mo," he says. She lives in Nottingham, in the UK, where he had been living for the past 11 years, before he got deported last summer.

But, I thought he didn't have family in the UK?

"No," he says laughing, "you asked if I had family in London."

He doesn't.

Giggz went to prison for four years. He got out last summer. It was drug money that he stole, but luckily, the courts didn't know that at the time. "If they knew, I would have been in there even longer. It's not somefink I wanted." So, instead of slapping him with a lengthier prison term, they declared him a menace to society, and sent him packing back to Jamaica. But he feels he's lucky. "My family here welcomed me with open arms. I stay with them." It could have been worse. Most of his friends from Nottingham are still in prison or dead.

"I shouldn't have even went on the operation that morning," he says. "I was supposed to be at college, yea. Through someone at college, I ended up getting suspended. So, I ended up staying home, yea, turning on my computer, yea, playing some games, yea."

But, suspicion in his house began to arise. "My sister said to me, 'You're not going to college today? You're staying here?' I said, 'Aw, shut up.'" Then, his phone rang. "Yea, my general. That's my friend," he says. "My sister see me putting on my gloves, she see me taking off my clothes, she know what time it is, yea. She was like, 'stay.' And I said, 'don't worry, I'll be back in five.' Did the operation. Only one thing put me off, yea. One individual recognized me. And one guy had taken my bike, so I'm not going to lie. I had to eff him up too, pretty bad." So, with a beat up guy and ratted out by his victim, Giggz was arrested.

And instead of being back in five minutes, he came back in four years. And was immediately deported. Now, jobless and with little hope of securing one anytime soon, Giggz instead shuttles the working class of Kingston around the city.

Back to Halfway Tree: Giggz and Romain

Giggz walks around, hollering at friends. Romain sits next to me. He is from Jonestown, a neighborhood directly underneath Trenchtown, in Kingston. He has just gotten out of the National Youth Service for behavior modification. "Anger management," he says. "I have a temper." By being in this program, he should hopefully get a job soon through the government.

Romain's brother was killed last year. His brother was wanted. Accused of having killed a youth, something Romain vehemently denies, he was wanted. His face was all over the TV. But, instead of the police bringing him to the station, they shot him square in the head as he lay sleeping, says his brother. Romain was responsible for identifying his body. He pulls out his Razor phone, and flips through the pictures that he took of his brother.

"This was taken post-mortem," he says. His brothers face is gaunt, and looks like he was left somewhere, for a while. His skin is peeling from around his ears, putting bone white flecks all over his dark skin. His face is gone, so much so that his teeth are now protruding. He was 27. "No matter what the circumstance," Romain says angrily, "they nuh have the right to kill em!" There are no uncorrupted police, according to Romain.

Neither Giggz nor Romain have become pessimistic about their lives and environment. "See in Jamaica, yea," Giggz says, switching into his strong Yorkshire accent, "things like that go on everyday, yea. Everyday where, friend passed away, family member passed away. Man just look at it like just part of life. People don't see it as a loss. Only probably like, a baby mother or something like that. Friends, yea, we just see it as hard and gone. Just one of them gone. Everyday we lose a friend."

One of their friends, whose picture was figured prominently on Giggz's shirt, had died just a month before. "Him was a bus driver," Romain says. After driving for a field trip, he went to go collect his money, and was shot and killed. "[They found his body] a week after; and he was dead, just like that."

Giggz pulls out his old Nottingham University student union card to show me. Constantly in the background of Halfway Tree is the slap of conductors hitting the buses, their voices wailing, yelling for customers. They get distracted for a few seconds, chasing a friend, chasing a girl. But soon, it's back to the slapping, their hands hitting the metal. Romain says he can't really blame the "rude boys," or thugs, who try to hold up the buses from time to time. "It hard, you know. Everybody a try to get work right now." "The government nuh give them no work," Giggz says. "Them nuh have no welfare program like you'd have in a foreign place. You nuh have no work, you nuh can go upon the welfare program. Jamaica have none of that. You have no work, you nuh have no income." But you have to live. "A man hungry," Giggz says.

Romain and Giggz go through the photos they've taken, and decide to take one together. They laugh, putting their hands together to form a triangle, but find a hard time getting it the way they want.

Giggz sings along softly to Ginuwine. "I would like," says Romain, "to date a black, American girl." Could I help him? I laugh and tell him that I have a sister his age. Maybe she has friends? "Ah, she a got a boyfren?" Romain drops his head, and smiles bashfully. "Mi thought mi coulda been in the family."

Epilogue

Stuck in traffic, interviews behind me, I wait in a taxi, in the uptown area of Kingston. Suddenly, a hurried announcement comes on the radio. There's been a shooting in Crossroads. Someone shot at a bus. I freeze, afraid to do what I should. I wait an hour before I do what I should have done immediately.

I text Giggz.

No response.

I think about what Romain had told me earlier that day. "If you keep your life," he says," anything is possible."

Two hours later, I receive a call. It's Giggz. He had stayed in Halfway Tree, so he wasn't on a bus when the shooting occurred. "But it's nice to know you care," he says.

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}
by Shamira Muhammad {The Liberator Magazine 10.1 #25, 2011}

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