Wednesday, August 08, 2007

John Chewit, Nanny and the Out House

John Chewit
Ink and watercolor on paper
Print available here.

I assumed he was a figure in Jamaican history. John Chewit, it sounded like a proper English "genkle-man". We'd stayed in the cottage bearing this name countless times over the past several summers at Whistling Bird and are again this summer. This is the view of our verandah, as we turn down the path from the main gate. I never gave the cottage names much thought and was actually most happy not to have a complete understanding of the world around me.

For a change.

As I've noted previously, I often don't really have a clue, when I'm in Jamaica. A complete fish out of water when it comes to figuring out the finer points. At home I read the newspapers and news magazines obsessively, watch the news, read blogs online, try to keep up with current fiction and so forth.

But in Jamaica, I am almost relieved to just give it all up. Throw up my hands and surrender to incomprehensison. It IS calming not to have to know what's going on at all times. Ignorance IS bliss.

In my defense, I am quite adept at understanding patois, tho' pretending to be quite ignorant of such. Very helpful. And I did quickly figure out that "lend me a nanny" literally meant "give me 500 Jamaican dollars" because the 500 dollar note had an image of Nanny Of the Maroons, treasured national heroine, imprinted upon it (read more about her here: It is often MOST beneficial to understand what you can, obviously, but feign ignorance, lest one be completely lead astray.

I'm not one eediot, of course.

So back to John Chewit.

When our firstborn was just a toddler, we stayed out in the yard in Sav-La-Mar, rather than stay at Whistling Bird, or any other place in Negril. We had our own one-room, little board house at our disposal. We had a single bare lightbulb, no indoor plumbing, of course, and we had to hastily nail some loose boards across the opening to the front door just so our little one wouldn't stumble out and drop the 2 feet or so to the ground below.

We had to walk to the very back of the yard to use the outdoor shower, which was really just 3 pieces of barely vertical zinc, surrounding a rather meager shower head atop a skimpy pipe. Likewise, for the outhouse, which was a frightful destination after dark. I once approached it in the pitch of night, flashlight in hand, only to find it surrounded by belching bullfrogs. I tiptoed amongst them, pried open the squeaky wooden door only to find several more INSIDE the actual house, including a very bold fellow aggressively belching from his position upon the seat itself.

A determined stamp of my foot didn't shoo the bulging, slimy frog off his perch. Rather, it only caused him to leap directly INTO the hole of the pit itself, right through the seat, waiting for me to continue on my mission. I never used the outhouse after dark again. I'd rather squat behind the house in the bushes.

And when we had our second child, I succumbed to the lure of finer accommoodations in Negril. I just didn't feel like camping out anymore. It was fine when it was me alone, but for the few weeks I had to travel each year, presumably on VACATION, I decided I really didn't want to rough it with two small children.

So it was back to the beach, and a cottage at Whistling Bird. The property is lovely, lush and naturally landscaped. Not covered with concrete and manicured grass. It is almost a quiet, small jungle. We all squeezed into a one-room cottage that first year, sharing a bed with one child and setting up the other in a portable crib. The cottage was called Banana Quit.

To me, it sounded like the name of a luscious tropical dessert. I'll have one thin slice of Banana Quit, please, with coffee, hmmm?

For several years after that we stayed in Nightengale, which had two rooms and was more comfortable. It was after several years in Nightengale, the girls grew bigger and ours stays grew longer, before we moved up to the much larger cottage of John Chewit. We had much larger rooms, a screened-in porch off to the side, and a kitchenette of sorts with a mini-fridge and countertop with a sink on the verandah. We pack a couple of hot plates and haul a coal pot out from the country and we're good to go, cooking up a storm or just making a morning pot of bush tea at breakfast.

And after 16 years, I still wasn't hip to the pattern. Clueless, as usual.

The cottage names struck me as so very odd and eccentric. In addition to those I mentioned - John Chewit, Banana Quit and Nightengale -- there were also Night Heron, Cling-Cling, Parrot, Aunty Katy, Petchary, Tananger, Parakeet, Doctor Bird and Jacana. Seeing them all in a list, perhaps, makes it so easy.

The sharper tacks among you will now see that John Chewit is, of course, hardly a proper English genkle-man. He is, rather, a simple bird, as are the rest of the characters proudly adorning the name plates of the cottages at the W.B. -- it is the Whistling Bird, after all.

Don't think I'll be ordering a slice of Banana Quit any time soon...........


Aunti M said...

I can relate to not understanding the runnings in Jamaica. One of the smarter (and maybe safer) moves I've made living on the island is making it clear that I don't know.
I don't know whaa gwaan.
I haven't heard anything about it.
I don't know you.
I don't know your brother.
I don't recall or remember.
It is a wonderful freedom to live in the moment. The only thing I DO know is happening right now.

Vinny said...

Thank you for a piece of Jamaica, in my mind, and in your painting. It's a blessing to just get lost for a minute on a hectic New York City day.

Anonymous said...

How come I never heard this yarn before? AND what was the name of John's and my cottage several years ago and also mine after John died? Do you know? Would love to know myself.

Ron Southern said...

I have always sort of hated lizards, but now you've added bullfrogs to my list! Yipes!

I remember outhouses at my grandparents' homes (50 years ago) and I never liked them. As dark came, I felt that the snakes might have the advantage!