Tuesday, March 27, 2007

WORLD CUP DIARY: Of slicing bellies and Woolmer’s memory

What does a blogger do when he spends almost all his time at the lobby of the hotel where Bob Woolmer was killed? Well, not much. Except that (a) he doesn’t blog, and (b) he looks for opportunities to run away for a spot of sightseeing every once in a way. All I have been doing for the past week is waiting at the Pegasus lobby, because this is where all the news filters in, the local journalists spread rumours, and the investigators throw in occasional guest appearances.

Which is why yesterday – a Sunday here in Jamaica – I chose to wake up early and go off to Port Royal. Early, because I had to get back before the investigators came out to say anything. And it was a really, really nice break with a good deal of sea, hilly terrains and stuff thrown in.

The village of Port Royal used to be a British naval base, and even saw Horatio Nelson spend some time heading the troops. But more interestingly, Port Royal used to be the biggest pirates’ den in the 1600s and 1700s; Captain Morgan being the most in-famous of the lot. So the little village does have a lot of history and that certainly demanded a trip on our part.

The drive itself is rather breathtaking. You have the Caribbean Sea to your right, and the Blue Mountains accompanying you to the left all the way down from Kingston to Port Royal. And then you enter the rather sleepy and quaint fishing village, which is approximately the size of an average Delhi residential colony. Lots of wooden houses, wooden restaurants and bars…narrow roads with zillions of boats in various states of disrepair scattered around.

Being a Sunday, the fisherfolk had chosen to wake up late and hit the pubs straightaway in all their fish-stink glory. Believe me, the entire village smells like Chittaranjan Park does around 11.00pm, when the markets are closing, and the fish-wallahs throw out their fish-water on to the streets. But if you can ignore the smell – easy for me, with my dysfunctional nose – they provide some fantastic company and great conversation in their slightly-tough-to-decipher-rustic-drawl.

It’s from them that I got to know that Morgan and the rest of the buccaneers looted out on sea and then brought all their loot to Port Royal and hid everything in the village itself. Not that any of it survived, because not only did pirates steal from the sea, they also stole from each other. And they liked their drink and their women more than anything else, and wasted most of the money on suchlike pursuits. As a result of all this, Port Royal came to be known as the ‘wickedest place in the world’ at the time.

But more importantly, the pirates of the time weren’t anything like Captain Jack Sparrow or Bootstrap Bill Turner…or even the losers in the Asterix comics. They were really cruel, and enjoyed a laugh with such forms of cruelty as slicing open bellies of pregnant women. The myth goes that drunk buccaneers would spot pregnant women and bet on whether the woman was going to have a boy or a girl. Wagers laid out on the table, they would proceed to slice open the pregnant woman’s belly and figure out who wins. The woman would then be left to bleed to death as the moneys were fought over.

But that was then, and the British managed to waylay them over time and the pirates were gradually obliterated. Very few remains remain now, and most of the heritage spots around Port Royal are British artillery settlements and fortresses…quite average in terms of their aesthetic appeal.

But there’s one very, very interesting structure inside the fort called Fort Charles. It’s called the Giddy House. Why is it called the Giddy House? Well, it’s basically a House that makes you feel Giddy. Simple as that. It was a godown or storehouse for ammunition back in the British days, but sunk some 15-odd degrees after a major earthquake in 1907 (one of many to have hit the Jamaican island). What that’s done is that the whole house has become sort of like Charlie Chaplin’s log cabin in Gold Rush. So as you step inside, it gets very difficult to hold on to your balance and it does make you feel giddy.

Anyway, that’s that. My trip to St Kitts was cancelled earlier, and now, when I am supposed to be in Georgetown, Guyana, I am still in Kingston with no clear idea of when I can move to another part of the Caribbean. Any place will do, really…but Mr Woolmer’s memory forces me to hang on here.

PS: Have got my paws on another CLR James. This one is a collection of his articles and letters and suchlike stuff called A Majestic Innings. Have just started on it.