The Intrepid Starling
Chapter 7: Three Little Birds
Floating out on a hum from slipper shops in Fes and whistled by cab drivers in Yaounde, Bob Marley’s songs accompany Sam on her journey like an unplanned soundtrack. Melodies of redemption and romance, peace and protest are sung in a hundred accents unified in a common love for the music. It soothes her like a familiar lullaby.
Now that she is in the legend’s birthplace, the soundtrack is ever-present—an uninterrupted score to the nation’s everyday stories. The tempo matches the laidback rhythm of this Caribbean island as notes flow from speakers outside of open-air barbecue stands and buzz from car radios. Even now, her driver Benjamin is singing “Three Little Birds” as they cruise down the highway to the Blue Hole.
He is the proud grandfather of a new baby girl whose picture sits in the center of his steering wheel. Her cherub face smiles up at him with high eyebrows and a stuck-out tongue caught mid-gurgle. “Look at her,” he says proudly to Sam. “My whole world is in those sparkly eyes.
“Well, those eyes and that water,” he nods to the ocean on their left. “Look at it shimmer.” His tone is almost as loving as when he speaks of his grandchild. “This is Jamaica, baby.”
Sam finds herself similarly endeared to the island. It’s exactly as she expected, though better than she hoped. The smooth, glassy waters are warmer and more turquoise bright. The interior more green and lush with earthy aroma. The people more easygoing and sunny than the weather. Her heart dances a little each time someone says “Yeah, man.” There’s something in the realness of it she finds satisfying, like finally seeing a famous painting only ever viewed in books.
Benjamin uses the phrase often and it eases their conversation as a comfortable invitation for silence to settle in. He doesn’t stay quiet for long stretches, but he is content to let the conversation lull until there’s something helpful or humorous to say.
As they pass a trio of steeples, he informs her Jamaica has the highest number of churches per capita in the world. “Next to every one you’ll find a bar,” he says nonchalantly and then pauses for comic effect. “While the wife is being moved by the spirit, the husband allows the spirits to move him, too!” He whoops and then slaps the steering wheel. “Yeah, man.”
Sam finds herself at ease with his good-natured banter and tried-and-true jokes. He is clearly at ease himself, confident behind the wheel and comfortable in this line of work. He used to be a taxi driver but shifted to touring when his nephew’s business needed more drivers. “I prefer this to shuttling about all day,” he tells her. “I like to sit with a body, you know. Have some time to swap stories.”
Sam does know. Now, several weeks into her journey, she recognizes that one of the few downsides of steady travel is the impermanence of relationships on the road. Most interactions, like buying a train ticket or bottle of water, are too abbreviated to start a meaningful conversation. Banter with concierges, waiters, tour guides and shopkeepers, reveals a whisper of their story, but she is left guessing at the plot. This way of meeting people reminds her of seeing a new place by train. The engine moves slowly enough that one gets a sense for a passing town, but there is no chance to wander its streets, sample its bakery’s bread, kneel in its old church or mingle in its plazas. There is no time to appreciate the nuances of its winding roads or find beauty in the messiness of its street art. She only glimpses the lives of others while moving from city to city, but there is little time to really know a body, as Benjamin says. Sometimes her breath catches when she considers the many friends she will never make, the lessons they will never teach her, their jokes she will never hear. It isn’t a steady worry or sadness, but a once-in-awhile jolt when she realizes the smallness of her little world’s orbit on this larger spinning sphere.
After an hour on the freeway, Benjamin steers the car away from the main road to climb into the hills to an informal parking lot. A group of young men in swim trunks are milling about and one of them runs toward the car as they pull in. “He’ll offer to be your guide,” Benjamin explains. “He’ll help you climb and tell you where to plunge in!”
"I’m Mark,” grins the muscular twenty-something when he reaches the driver’s window and leans in to shake Benjamin’s hand and then Sam’s. His hair is carefully plaited in neat rows and his broad shoulders are evidence that he swims in the falls as much as he climbs them. “Welcome to the most beautiful day we’ve ever known at the Blue Hole.”
“They say that every time,” Benjamin smiles at Sam.
“Yeah, man,” laughs Mark.
The three of them saunter down the path to the falls. Benjamin won’t swim, but it’s far cooler to wait in the dappled shade than in the car.
As they reach the overlook, Sam gasps. “Oh, wow,” she whispers. It looks like a scene from her childhood fairytale books—a place Peter Pan’s mermaids might live or where Mowgli from the Jungle Book might splash around. Twisted trees with hanging vines encircle the lagoon. Palm fronds dip to kiss the falls as they cascade down a massive rock into still blueness. The water is not the glassy turquoise of the ocean, but stormy like a polished stone—deep and clear.
She opts not to jump from the 20-foot high viewpoint and instead takes Mark’s hand to walk down the dirt path to a natural platform just a few feet high. “Ready?” He waits for her nod and then counts to three before they jump in with Sam holding her nose with one hand and squeezing his hand in the other.
The plunge is all-encompassing and entirely different than diving into a swimming pool. There’s something about the depth of the water that makes it feel eternal, as though the bottom is as deep as the sky is high. The water is earthy and refreshing—cool, but with no need to clench against the cold. When they emerge from its depths, the only noise is the rush of the falls and the happy yelps of fellow divers. The sun filters through in warm specks and the fall’s natural current nudges them to the edge. In short, it is wonderful.
The second pool is just as deep, surrounded by large, low rocks instead of steep, green slopes. People are scattered about, warming themselves in the small patches of light. Sam imagines this is what a local swimming hole in small-town America must feel like—casual and calm with few rules and lots of ease. Someone has tied a rope swing above the water. The guides do flips from it while visitors follow with cautious cannon bombs.
“Wait here,” Mark tells her and walks over to a tall tree and begins to climb.
“No way,” Sam calls up when he is midway. “From clear up there?”
“Higher,” he answers back and continues climbing. At the top, nearly 30 feet up, he walks to the end of a branch with more ease than a tightrope walker. “Say go, Sam!”
Her stomach is in her throat at seeing him so high. “Okay,” she calls cautiously, but he can’t hear her above the rush of the falls. She inhales sharply. “Okay!” she yells and unconsciously grips the edge where she’s sitting.
“Okaaay,” he sings and falls forward with arms outstretched. Quickly, he clutches his knees to his chest for two tight spins before straightening out like an arrow piercing a pillow. Seconds later he pops to the surface and smacks the water with his fist. “Yeah, man!”
He swims to where Sam is sitting and lifts himself out of the water in one swift motion. “Come,” he pulls her up and they walk to the makeshift bar on the water’s edge. Blue Hole Shack reads the hand-lettered sign on the bench next to it.
Built of bamboo with a tin roof, Sam is enchanted by its ruddy perfection. “Amazing.” The scene couldn’t be more storybook.
“Jonas!” Mark calls out and a barefooted man emerges from somewhere behind the shack. “Two cokes, man.”
The cold shock of sugar is intensely satisfying as the syrupy fizz glides across Sam’s tongue. Could the moment—in all its sweet, dappled-shaded bliss—be more perfect? No. No way, man.
Back on the road again, Benjamin promises fried fish with rice and peas for lunch. On their way to the restaurant, they happen upon a clapboard shack painted green. Brownies H.Q., reads the sunny yellow lettering across its side. “That’s the happiest street pharmacist around,” he laughs, while a dancing man waves both hands as they pass.
After their meal—where Sam learns rice and peas doesn’t contain the green vegetable at all, but is really the staple grain served with black beans—Benjamin decides it’s time to quiz her on Patois. “I’ll ask a question and you try at the answer in English. Ready?”
She sits up straight in her seat. “Very ready.” She’s been curious about the local language since arriving in the country.
“Wat yu nyam dis mawnin?” he asks with a twinkle in his eye.
She gets stuck on the sound of the middle word and mistakes it for from. “The United States,” she attempts hopefully.
“Ah! You ate a whole country for breakfast?” Benjamin asks in mock surprise. “No wonder you couldn’t finish your fish at lunchtime! Jamaican men like fluffy ladies, you know. You’re going to have to work on that,” he says with a wink.
Suddenly his phone rings and he excuses himself to answer it. “A bit of an emergency,” he explains. Among the unfamiliar words she recognizes hospital and urgent.
When he hangs up, his eyes are solemn and his brows are serious. “My son went to see the doctor this morning in terrible pain,” he tells her. “Now, we come to learn he has appendicitis and they'll be operating this evening.”
“I’m so sorry,” Sam gingerly reaches out to touch his shoulder.
“You know, we are famous here for saying ‘no problems,’ but we do have problems,” he reflects. “We just always make the most of it. We just try to make the most of life.” He rubs the picture of his granddaughter. “Your daddy goin’ be okay,” he promises her.
When Benjamin shakes her hand goodbye at the hotel, Sam asks if he will call the front desk with news of his son’s operation. “You’ll be in my thoughts tonight,” she promises, taking his hand in both of hers.
“I’ll be sure to call,” he assures her and raises his other hand to cover them all.
As she falls asleep that night, Sam thinks about the snippets of life she witnessed during the day—the small windows into other worlds. She is grateful to the boys of the Blue Hole for sharing their treasure with outsiders. She is grateful for Benjamin’s easy humor and display of fatherly love. However brief, she is grateful to have a chance for her life to rub up against these other lives and feel their warmth, courage and even a bit of sadness. She is glad their orbits could collide, even if for only a half rotation on the Earth’s axis.
The next morning, she calls the front desk for news of the operation. “Is he going to be okay, Thomas?” she asks the clerk whose voice she’s come to recognize.
“Yeah, man,” he says and then she can almost hear the song in his voice. “Everything’s goin’ be all right.”