T here was a “chk-chk-chk” sound and deep, melodic humming coming from outside of my bedroom window. I got up and looked out the window to peer through white, lace curtains. A short, muscular Rasta man with free-form dreads and a pair of sharp shears was trimming the bush outside. As he worked, he sung in patois I couldn’t understand. The melody sounded familiar. It reminded me of the songs my grandma would sing while she worked in her own yard. This yard, though, reminded me of The Secret Garden, the tropical edition. It was spacious and luscious, full of avocado, moringa, and breadfruit trees. There were colorful, big-blossomed plants that grew to my chest. The back of the house overlooked Bluefields Bay. There were steps that led down to a cliff and small cove where I sometimes took dips in the sea. I confided in the sea when depression got to me and I wanted to hide. Every morning, waking from warmth kissing my face, I saw the sun rise over the sea and shine through trees, straight into my room.
It was my second week rooming at Wiltonhouse, a family-owned guesthouse in Bluefields, an area in the Westmoreland Parish of Jamaica. It was mixed with tradesmen, fishermen, farmers, and working class folks.
Two days before I arrived, the man of the yard, Rex, passed on from brain cancer. Friends and relatives who knew him came from far and wide to come together and help B., his lady, prepare the yard and food for the nine nights ceremony. Nine nights is a Caribbean funeral tradition with African roots that commemorates the dead, usually, for nine days. During these days, people drank, ate and shared good-natured and memories about Rex. From the way people spoke of him, I knew Rex had left a big mark on the lives of many.
“He was a good, good, man,” B once said as we sat on a bench in her garden, looking toward her house. “He always treated people right and helped them as much as he could.” B is a petite, dark-skinned woman with a crooked-toothed smile that lights up her face. At 54, her skin was smooth, plump, youthful even in her grief.
“I feel no regret,” she asserted. “I know I did everything to support him until the end.”
I spent some days getting to know B. She was always wandering around the yard in the mornings, looking at the plants and drinking tea. “Yuh alright?” she’d ask, with a big smile. Some days I felt like I was living in a dream. The trees were too vibrant, the food too good and the fruit too fresh. Everything I knew before then seemed faded and so far away.
Two weeks before, I left rural South Carolina after being physically assaulted by a family member. A few days after filing an assault charge, I took the money I had saved up and flew to Jamaica. Months before, I had been preparing a photography project that documented oral histories. I felt a rush of relief as I flew over the Blue Mountain peaks and Caribbean Sea, eager to see what new experiences awaited me. To numb the effects of the traumatic event, I threw myself into collecting oral histories in Bluefields.
Before I went to Jamaica, I read Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston where she retold accounts of studying African-based folk rituals in Haiti and Jamaica. She not only insightfully recounted what she saw and experienced, but made the effort to create bonds and connections with the people she learned from. She recognized that the lives she asked access to were lived by real people and to understand their lives fully meant being fully present and participatory in it with them. To me, she embodied what it meant to be a wanderer.
A photojournalism professor advised: “Give yourself to your subjects.” It rang in my ears for a long time. Although the intention of her advice was clear—let people get to know you—I began to interrogate the language used. How much of myself should I give? And why were people my subjects? As an emerging photojournalist, I searched for the best way to get to know a community which was not my own.
I soon learned that meant investing time into the people. It meant sitting, reasoning over a Red Stripe with an elder Rasta. Or spending a night at a small rum shack buying the barmaid a drink and playing pool with her. Or laughing with a fisherman over a ganja spliff. I found myself leaving my camera at the yard some days. I knew shoving it into the faces of strangers wouldn’t work here. To build trust meant I had to, in some cases, forgo lugging the camera and shoot the shit. To me, the folks I chilled, laughed, and reasoned with were not “subjects,” but “collaborators.” And, soon, some became good friends and confidants.
It was a gradual transition coming from a big city like Chicago where you can walk past the same person everyday and not notice their existence. Bluefields is small, leaving no room for anonymity. “Your business follows you everywhere,” a friend once said. Folks know every car and license plate that drives through the area. Men who spent days lounging on the streets, in the bars, and on the beach came to recognize the bag I wore, noticed the change in my mood, and even the people I hung around.
As I walked, they would call out:
“‘Ello sweet’art, I saw ya at Doret’s last night.”
It created a sense of surveillance that I was not used to. There was a duality in how people both knew how where you lived but didn’t know you; knew of you but never conversed with you. But, in Bluefields everyone knows everyone. Everyone was either cousins, sisters, or close friends. Tight-knit to the point of near-claustrophobia.
I spent most of my time listening to the stories of spear fishermen, artists, sailors, and farmers who welcomed me into their life. Skinny, a spearfisherman I’d interviewed, described how it felt to dive into the ocean without a breathing tank. His eyes lit up as he retold me about the time he had to swim from a deadly fish he had been hunting. He smiled as spoke, painting pictures with words, of how the sea is a different world.
Sailors regarded me with polite warmth. After all, I was not the first American with a pen and notebook in hand, eager to ask prying questions about their life. They wondered why I was interested in documenting the life of a fisherman instead of working in America. I looked back, searching and curious, knowing we come from different worlds but our goals in life were very similar.
A fisherman’s greatest joy in life is freedom. To move about this earth with no physical or imaginary chains was their ultimate goal in life. To look at the world with acceptance and happiness in knowing that they lived another day was all they needed to stay motivated. From them, I learned small acts of kindness and acknowledgment can go a long way.
My favorite time of day didn’t involve the typical island sunset. It was the hour before it. When the sun still hung high above clouds. The sky would move into transitions, from blue to shades of salmon and lavender. I’d sit watching the horizon. One evening, I remembered something my grandma once told me. “Find something beautiful to look at outside and examine it closely. See the beauty in it, Re.” And when I looked out at the horizon, I found a miracle in the way the clouds rippled and reflected above the sea; in how the sea shimmered. I found joy in the way the sea pushed against rock and earth and how the earth and rock pushed back, unmoving. In that moment, I knew that I could be nothing without nature.
Most days, I walked the main road that went along the Caribbean Sea. Under the sun, the water transformed into swaying crystals. I often sat on the wall that overlooked the sea and gaze into the horizon. Andrew, a good Rasta-Muslim friend of mine would join me. He lived with his uncle in a two-story house made from bamboo on the beachfront. They are farmers and cooks in the process of building a guesthouse and raising a farm for organic fruits and produce.
The radio at his place was always on, playing Top 40 hits mixed with dancehall and roots reggae. I’d sit with him, roll a spliff under low-light and discuss any and everything under the sun, and moon. On nights when I felt most ignited from ganja and inspired by visions, I urged that the Black revolution was happening right now. In the streets, on college university campuses, in homes. I saw bitter-tinged hope reflected in his eyes as he claimed we, as a people, still needed growth and unity. I wondered what revolution he wanted.
Nearing the end of my second month, I’d made friends with fishermen, barmaids, artists, and farmers—the people who seemed most approachable. Others who saw me pass by regarded me with reserved curiosity. The polite smile on some fishermen’s faces, whose bars I frequented, began to fade. I began to feel like a tourist who had overstayed her visa.
“She looks like us, but she’s not one of us,” Evernie, a local barmaid, once said to an older man who, assuming I was Jamaican, had began to speak to me in fast-paced patois.
Once while walking down the main road one evening, a Rasta elder beckoned me over to his shop.
“Yuh got courage, ykno,” he said.
“Walking alone in a community that’s not your own…takes courage.”
Addressing the elder’s comment with a head nod and smile, I said: “I think I have some good friends around here. I’m alright.”
He assessed me for a minute, sizing me up, then nodded. His gray, dreaded beard swung like a heavy pendulum. “Take care of yuhself.”
I had many instances like that with other people. Making sure I’m no danger to them, they ask me questions like: “I always see you walking. What do you do? Where’s your family? Where’s your husband? Boyfriend?” Men, usually older, some good-hearted and some lonely, tried to take me under their wing, make me their woman. They wanted to protect me, from whatever danger they knew. To them, it seemed, a wandering woman is a lost one.
What did it mean to be a Black woman traveling alone?
To be a Black woman wanderer wasn’t a “transformational journey” like the white women in films like Eat, Pray, Love or Wild. I wasn’t trying to find myself or break free from the monotonous chains of suburbia. On a broad spectrum, I wanted, no needed, to feel a connectedness with Black folks within the diaspora. Beyond US soil, I wanted to see the way we thrived; how we swayed our hips as we walked; the way we were curators and creators of our culture. Deep within me, I needed to hear Jamaican patois from Jamaican mouths and eat stewed fish with cassava. I needed to see the Blue and Jim Crow Mountains or discuss politics with a Bahamian expat named Ralph over white rum. Maybe it looked superficial, impulsive and foolish to others but for me, it was necessary.
Shantrelle P. Lewis, another fellow black woman wanderer, commented on what it was like to do research and work on the Black/African Diaspora:
“Being out in the field is so important. Being in a diaspora has been critical to my work. I don’t talk about diaspora, I do diaspora. So many people in academia talk about diaspora this, the African diaspora that in their programming and these are people who have never been outside of–I mean, I’ll speak for the States–who’ve never been, you know, outside of the states. You have to go to Nigeria. You have to go to Brazil. You have to see what’s happening in the Black communities in Canada, in Amsterdam, in Suriname, in Curaçao to really be able to understand what the diaspora is all about. It’s so nuanced that you can’t even understand it, wrap your brain around it, from a distance.”
To walk this earth, a Black woman, a curious wanderer, is to be okay with walking alone. It means there will be nights when you laugh and stumble home alone from drinking too much overproof rum and others when you feel a oneness from a conversation with another Black traveler. It means to trace beats and riddims back to Africa and twerking to them. It means to be inspired by spirituality expressed in a dance, a song, in Baptist churches in Jamaica and the American South. To be a woman, Black and wandering, means to feel welcomed amongst other, though not all, Black folks in spite of–or maybe, because of– your difference. It means to laugh, loud and free, at yourself and with others. It means to witness the similarities that connect Black folks to each other and know you are in the right place. To live within a diaspora means that you are never, really, completely alone. There is power in that. In Jamaica, I had felt that oneness as I wandered.
The night before I left Jamaica, I stayed up to clean. My suitcase was lighter on the trip. As I washed dishes, I looked out the small window above the sink. It was opened which brought in cool, sweet air from the sea and the sound of crickets. The pale yellow glow of the moon, nearly full, hung high in the sky above dark waters. I felt unbridled joy ripple through my body as I gazed at the sight.
Moments before, I was stressing about the court trial that awaited me in South Carolina, the debt I was in, being an unemployed artist, and feeling remorse about leaving just when I began to gain momentum on the project.
But, when I saw the moon gaze back at me, I felt a calmness wash over me like a soothing balm. There were a lot of stressors that almost engulfed me while in Bluefields. Some days I felt my work there was going nowhere and other days I believed it wasn’t going fast enough. Yet, when I looked at the environment, full of beauty, mystery and wonder, all of my worries became staticky whispers. I grew in Bluefields. I learned that stress is mostly a game my mind played on myself. In efforts to resist the game, I learned to “check in” with myself. To go to a place of solitude and recognize my gifts, appreciate the environment and the people living with me. I breathed in a lungful of sweet, night air for the last time and exhaled with a heavy sigh.
I left something behind in Bluefields, too. I have yet to articulate it in words, but when I landed in South Carolina, like my suitcase, I felt lighter.
All photos © Ireashia Monét
Ireashia Monét is a writer, photographer, journalist, interstellar mermaid, and constant pleasure-seeker. She self-publishes written works such as My Way, Black Birds Fly and Love in the Time of Black Queer Death at Drala Mag an online art & culture zine. Her video works Reimagining Blackness and Ancestry and Ebb&Flow can be viewed on her vimeo site.
To keep updated on daily photoessays and upcoming projects, follow her Instagram (@visionsnvoices).