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Rastas, Reefers & Reggae

Balmy nights, laid back days, rum punch and steel bands… aaah we must be in Jamaica… writes international cricket coach and social commentator, Geoff Lawson.

These days, I spend a great deal of time working in India, I enjoy a stint in Pakistan and I throw in a few weeks in Bangladesh every now and then too.

The connections between these central Asian countries begin with their geography and extend to history and culture. The concentration of religions varies across the region but there are a multitude of beliefs outside the major theocracies. The greatest common denominator is probably the sheer number of inhabitants in these countries. Everywhere seems crowded and busy, whether rural or urban, north or south. There are many big cities, much poverty and a great love of cricket.

This month I am visiting a very different part of the world. Literally half a world away, in a time zone 15 hours behind the east coast of Australia and a very calculable 12 hours behind the west (when will they ever adopt daylight saving??).

Can’t wait to get back to Jamaica. The national motto is “Rastas, reefers and reggae”. Lucky I like my Bob Marley music

Heading West

The universal epithet for this region is the ‘West Indies’. Yet you will find that reference only rarely on recently
published maps.

It’s more likely to be referred to as ‘Netherlands Antilles (Lesser and Greater) or the Leeward and Windward Islands’. The ‘West’ part is actually quite old. It’s a term coined in the 15th century to delineate the region from the ‘East’ Indies when the Dutch and Portuguese explorers sailed east in search of hidden lands. They found the ‘Spice’ islands, which were also named the Dutch East Indies, and today make up much of Indonesia.

The Caribbean Sea is the general oceanic area west of the Atlantic named after its original inhabitants. While the Indian sub-continent has a recorded history going back thousands of years, the Caribbean islands were only sparsely inhabited by native peoples such as the Carib Indians until their discovery by westerners (Columbus among others).

The Carib Indian’s expulsion to the mainland and subsequent slave trade that brought 12 million African people over five centuries to work for the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Belgian and British led to the cultivation of the sugar cane industry. That required massive manpower and the most convenient means was to steal it (the men I mean), rather than employ!

The culture and religions of the Caribbean islands are somewhat different from south Asia. For example, Christianity in its various guises makes the majority in Trinidad with its population of two million. In this, the second largest of the English speaking islands (after Jamaica) only 2 per cent are Muslim. The religions of the Spanish, Dutch and fellow European explorers came from the Catholic persuasions and still do.

Volcanic Eruptions

The islands are nearly all remnants of dormant volcanoes although a couple still send a few cinders upwards now and then. Mt Soufriere in St Vincent had a deadly eruption in 1902 killing 2,000 (but has been quiet ever since) and Montserrat (British dependant and also known as Mt Soufriere!!!) had an eruption in 2005, which forced evacuation of the whole island and 40,000 people. Half the island is still a ‘no go’ zone and the capital of Plymouth is completely abandoned. Only 2,500 live there now.

The occasional hurricane hurries through but generally with less insistence in the southern Caribbean than those heading north towards Jamaica and Cuba. Nevertheless the cricket stadium in Granada, newly built by the Republic of China (Taiwan) government before the 2007 World Cup was blown away, and I do mean AWAY! Bring on the People’s Republic of China (mainland China), who came in and built another new stadium.

The PRC government representatives duly turned up for the opening ceremony and the local steel band played the previous constructors national anthem!!! An immediate walk out ensued but the people of Granada couldn’t care less as the first ball was bowled in their new arena. Wars have started over lesser misunderstandings.

The British Empire spread its tentacles west and east, and fortunately when slavery was abolished in 1834, cricket remained and prospered. The unbreakable joyous spirit of the African slaves and their descendants was joined by other indentured workers from China, Portugal and India. The names of successive West Indies cricketers are reflected in that multicultural net. Ramadin, Sang Hue, Gomes, Chanderpaul, Sarwan and émigrés from St Vincent such as Phillip De Freitas who went on to play for England.

Steel Bands and Rum Punches

The phrase ‘laid back’ is often used to describe West Indian culture and that is not an inaccurate generalisation. The climate is almost always ‘balmy’. The tropical breezes keep the heat moderated and the rain moving on to the next island. The ocean is warm, slightly cooler and rougher on the Atlantic sides of islands but always swimmable.

You could survive on fishing and fruits if you had to. A hat and some block-out is recommended for those of fairer complexion but clothing can be minimal, and often is. Don’t bother packing a jumper unless the air conditioning in the hotel is turned too high!

Steel bands and rum punch greet visitors at airports and hotels – these people love their music and their dancing. Like Indians they also love a festival, or a carnival as the Western Indies dictate.

Travel between the islands is by boat or plane, and intra island the local taxis are minivans with ‘shot gun’ riders bellowing for business… there are no great railway stations like Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus which ushers millions a day on its platforms. The pace of life in India and the Indies could scarcely be further divorced or the populations more diverse… but the core values are so similar.

The demi gods of India such as Tendulkar, Dhoni and Dravid are a hemisphere away but revered just the same – although maybe not quite as much as Richards, Holding and Lloyd! The fans’ memories for the game are timeless. Several Vincentians mentioned to me an incident that happened on the field in Barbados 28 years ago, as if it were yesterday. Even I had forgotten much of the detail but don’t worry, they filled me in over a quiet rum punch or three.

American sports are everywhere on television screens and the young ones show their love for it by wearing New York Yankees or Chicago Bulls baseball caps.

West Indies cricket has been in decline since the halcyon years of the late 70s through to the mid-90s. The fans, as anyone’s followers do, want success and they had grown accustomed to winning. Never-the-less, they did fill the stands when the St Vincent (population 100,000) Prime Minister announced a public holiday after a Windies famous victory over Australia. You can do that sort of thing when you run an island nation…
a very small island.

Can’t wait to get back to Jamaica. The national motto is “Rastas, reefers and reggae”. Lucky I like my Bob Marley music.

Geoff Lawson OAM is a qualified optometrist and an ambassador for Optometry Giving Sight. He is a former Australian cricketer and the former coach of the Pakistan cricket team. In 1990 he received an OAM for services to cricket and in 2002 was given the Australian Sports Medal.