The tapping of footsteps coming down the stairs to my door can be heard in a semi-conscious state, answering the question that I lay pondering over in my bed since the first cocka-doodle-do took me away from a good dream that morning. I was tired and didn’t want to get up just yet. I wanted to go back to sleep where I could finish my flirtations with a beautiful woman. I think that she was about to tell me something important pertaining to our future when sounds from the real world began to corrupt my hallucination. The sound of someone coming indicated that Dowdy remembered our little arrangement to dig renta yam today. I lay with my face in my pillow, debating over whether or not I should come to the door. Maybe if I went back to sleep I would get to see her again, and forget about Jamaica, hustlers, and renta yam. There was a slight pause when the footsteps stopped at the front door. Dowdy was preparing to yell and I was preparing to respond. There were many different excuses that could have kept me in the hands of nocturnal bliss, but none of them could outweigh the enthusiastic call of my name, “Zebulon!” which was used to confirm this little date with yams.
I had been in Jamaica about five months when the prices of rice and four, both staples of Jamaican life, had almost doubled. This was bad news for Jamaican men, whose virility is directly connected to the food they eat. If true, then fewer dumplings throughout the course of a day would weaken the sexual stamina of an entire country – maybe not such a bad thing for Jamaica. But for Dowdy and others like him, who live each day not knowing the source of their next plate of food, flour and rice are condiments which have always been sequestered in some way, shape, or form, a source of nutrition that has always been affordable – the absence of which forces many like Dowdy to go far in the bush in search of yams planted by their ancestors who lived hundreds of years without imported grains. My volunteerism was greatly valued in this situation where an extra strong back means more food. With this in consideration, I quickly dressed myself for a day of digging yam and we left for Fern Hill.
The trails with which Dowdy and I navigate the bush are trails that have been used by the Maroons for the past three centuries. This town where I serve, Accompong, is actually a district – about a few thousand acres of land that were given to the Maroons in 1739, after continually humiliating the British in battle. Accompong is technically not even a part of Jamaica. It is ruled by a Colonel and his Maroon Council, a somewhat legislative body of elders that handle all matters pertaining to community development and governance, a job which escapes their jurisdiction only with the case of a capital crime (actually a job which escapes them almost entirely). If you ask a lot of Maroons, then they will tell you that they don’t even answer to the government of Jamaica, rather it’s only the Queen of England who deserves their audience. If you asked me, then I would just tell you that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer who’s not supposed to have anything to do with politics. My job right now is just to tell the story about a really big yam. Right about now, Dowdy and I were getting pretty close to Fern Hill, a hillock way out in the wilderness that used to be a big ganja farm in the 1970′s.
In the cool mid-morning mist a giant swallowtail butterfly flirted with the nectar of the marigolds and orchids that lined the path leading to a region of Jamaica where no white men had ever walked, much less dug renta yams. Nowadays, with all the people in the world and their seemingly vain struggle for creativity, it was rather comforting to know that I was doing something special, or even that I was, in fact, somebody special. It was in this time, as Dowdy and I pushed our iron forks into the soft soil of the Cockpit Country, that our desires of recognition were met with a friendly gathering of mosquitoes. Yes, for a few hours we would be the climax in what would have been an otherwise starved and boring mosquito life. In a place where the largest source of warm blood is a parrot, you wonder where Cockpit Country mosquitoes receive their nutrition. You can at least understand why they are so excited to have you over for dinner. This was life reduced to simplest terms in every way – Dowdy and I digging for food, for sustenance, releasing a body heat that becomes a honing mechanism for a wilderness full of hungry mosquitoes. Hell… everybody just wants to know where their next plate of food is going to come from. Isn’t that the simple fact of life? Eating and having sex. For mosquitoes, you certainly can’t have one without the other.
The tropic of cancer burned away the morning mist, revealing a sun that reminded us of the unpleasant connection between work and eating. Although the pile of renta was gradually growing, the amount of food for the amount of work involved left something to be desired; maybe large game like deer or a stream with fish. No, only parrots, pythons, and mosquitoes have found accommodation here in this place – a myriad of jagged, limestone boulders, rotten woods, and lush flora that eclipse a porous jungle floor of hidden sinkholes and mosquito infested bromeliads, a terrain more suited to transporting water than humans, a job that the Cockpit Country does very well being the recipient of the second highest rainfall on the island. It would be nice if it decided to collect and store some of it, but it just goes straight through the ground, making this lush landscape completely useless when it comes to the task of supporting human life.
We were already tired of digging before we even saw the big yam vine that climbed from the ground, to the limb of a tree, to the very endless woodland that lay beside us. It was a tell tale sign that something large lay underneath – something that could not only be eaten, but bragged over. Maybe it would even attract females. Maybe there was some connection that could be made between the size of a guy’s yam and his… Was this the connection we were looking for between food and sex? No, nowadays females don’t want anything but cell phones and sunglasses. Too bad for Dowdy and I. Too bad cell phones and sunglasses didn’t grow on the magnanimous vine that stretched out to choke the strongest Brasiletto tree in the forest. Even so, the yam beckoned our greatest efforts, the kind of effort that recalls Hank Aarons 700th homerun, or Lindberg’s landing in Paris. Dowdy and I had to prove that this yam could be unearthed.
Dowdy is probably my best friend in Accompong. This friendship was well earned, because Dowdy is the beneficiary of my most successful project. It wasn’t really a project as much as it was a simple suggestion, but his case was a good example of what could happen if people in Accompong actually took more of my suggestions. Anyway, so one night I am drinking a beer over at Dowdy’s and the man is just sitting there smoking a spliff when he turns to me and complains “Zeb…moneh not a run mon.” To any hard working American this makes stunning sense coming from a man who is doing nothing. Well, all I did was suggest that in his “spare” time when he had his hands free, he could be doing something – making something – like…I don’t know – like a spoon. The next day I saw Dowdy, and he had already completed one spoon and started another. By the end of the week he had three spoons. To make things even better, he sold all three the next week. And on top of that, some guy in Maggotty saw him making a spoon and commissioned one big spoon from him. He must have made 5,500 Jay those two weeks – (7,500 JMD = 100 USD). Now, making wooden spoons is a residual income for Dowdy and another guy named Bungo. It’s is always nice to see the power of a simple suggestion. Ever since, Dowdy has been a guy who has always appreciated what I have been trying to do, the service I have been giving. This service is a complex kind of thing; it could be writing a grant and implementing a big community project, or just going in the bush and giving a guy like Dowdy an extra hand in getting some food. Going out with Dowdy and digging for yams is sometimes the best use of my time when so many of the problems this island has, like its struggle to feed itself, are due to larger, outside forces that I can only have a short term impact over. It was nice to be out in the bush looking for yam, where getting more food is about patience and skill, not the size of a guy’s wallet.
Dowdy was the first one to start digging. It didn’t take much time to realize that this yam was different than the others. The first two feet of digging led to merely soil and rock. The head of the yam stood proudly above a foot that lay buried somewhere out of sight, there underneath hidden rocks, roots, and soil. After about an hour of switching yam digging shifts, the hole was large enough for us both to work simultaneously, yet it had become obvious that the yam had tricked us. The soft, delicious creature had taken a different path through soil, a soil that was quickly growing harder.
Far from water, far from women, far from home, far from the bottom of this yam, we sat on the edge of a three foot, horse shoe shaped hole that searched for the growing direction of a fickle root. Now it had become clear that if the yam was to be unearthed, then there was only one more direction that it could have gone. So we continued. Why? Good question. We had already enough yams to fill a couple of bellies for a week. Women just wanted cell phones and sunglasses. We had worked ourselves to a state of exhaustion. I’d like to think we did it for the same reason that when asked why he climbed Mt. Everest, Sir Edmond Hillary proclaimed, “Because it was there.” And much to our chagrin, it was. Who could to deny the existence of the largest mountain in the world? Yet who would ever care about the largest yam? People like to climb mountains. They just don’t go around digging holes, trying to reach some underground, penis-shaped piece of starch that no one has ever seen before.
The ensuing labor was monotony at its best, maybe even a little symbolic of the plight of the farmer with an iron fork amidst an agriculturally industrialized world. Most of the men in Accompong are farmers by profession and they farm most of the same things that farmers in the flat lands farm with a tractor, except they do it with a machete and an iron fork, because the Cockpit Country isn’t the kind of place that likes tractors, or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, working by hand brings a joy to farming for me. It makes following a yam’s path through the earth something like an art. The soft exterior of the yam can be damaged with a careless cut of the machete or a quick jab with the fork. As Dowdy and I slowly separated the yam from the soil, it became increasingly clear that the yam for which we were digging was no ordinary yam. The real problem after digging three feet in the earth for a yam with no end in sight can only be explained from the viewpoint of a man that has just digged all day. That is to say, he’s damn tired. What started like an innocent search for food had turned into a battle between men and yam. All that kept our tired arms digging was some sense of purpose, a purpose whose importance was perhaps as deep as the yam, a purpose that was being tested with every scrape of red dirt. As we dug, the evening sky was growing gray – a view which became our means of unwinding a tired back and neck that had bent double from morning, digging for a yam that seemed to have no end. But turning back was no longer an option. After a man works this long for something so tasty he can’t leave empty handed. Perhaps one can even say that there was something more we were searching for in that ground, nothing we wanted to take home with us or thump our chests in pride over, but an exalted experience, a mutual story that was not only epic, but edible.
As a soft rain began to fall, man, mosquito, and mud merged into two beings that would have frightened the devil himself. If the gates of hell were unearthed somewhere in that hole, then the devil would have quickly begged for forgiveness. The nice thing about rain is the way that it softens the soil. As the twilight hours ensued, that hard, dry, red crust quickly became slippery and soft, but it did the trick. After a whole afternoon of work, the contour of the yam’s foot was beginning to say hello. A slight curve which became less and less slight as Dowdy and I, exhausted and hungry, revealed what seemed to be the end of our journey to the center of the earth. At this point in yam digging all that is needed is a little shake to ensure that the rest of the yam could be pulled out. If you had dug all day without rest to reach the end of a giant yam, would you then not, in the end, give it a little shake, a little test, a peculiar nudge as you turned to your friend with the grin of, not so much success, but the sincerest form of contentment?
The rain had stopped and there was very little daylight remaining when the yam was pulled from the hole. I was in the process of telling Dowdy not to twist or lift it, out of the fear that all that work would be in vain had he pulled it out in two or three pieces. But luckily, the yam let go and Dowdy, even more tired than me, sat to examine the fruits of our labor, the yam that had taken us four hours to get out of the ground, the fine feast that awaited us. As we took up the crocus bag of yams that were dug earlier in the day it became increasingly clear that this almighty yam would need a private escort, a single, designated back to ensure that it could reach town in one piece.
There is a point in the day when it seems as though light will last forever, when the sun reaches a particular spot in the sky and refuses to move any farther. Then, there is a point immediately afterwards in which the light begins to quickly fade into the night. I think that the same thing can be said about aging. I can remember a time when my grandparents seemed as though they had actually ceased aging, and I hadn’t seen them in 17 months when I saw them in a picture that was mailed to me. I guess there’s just a time when we begin to realize that things have been changing. It was at this time, as we had settled on departure, that the sun was also making its final farewell. Yams on head and tools in hand, we raced against darkness to reach back, a decision which needed no discussion, the dissent of which was shared only by the swarm of mosquitoes.
Dowdy and I reached back to Accompong just as the sun lost its ability to light our path, after which we went our separate ways to clean up the mess we had made of ourselves. I would say that we took a shower, but that isn’t very useful terminology in a culture that baths from a bucket. In Jamaican lingo, it would only be proper to say that we held a fresh. I think it describes the act of getting clean pretty well no matter what process you choose to achieve it. Whatever way I used to get clean, I did so quickly in anticipation of eating, more specifically, in enjoying that giant yam that took almost half a day to retrieve. After holding a fresh, I quickly got dressed and scurried down to Dowdy’s shop where he was there tending to the cook-fire. There is something that I never want to leave behind – cooking by fire. Using electricity or gas will never achieve the flavor that food obtains when cooked over some burning wood. While Dowdy was bent over blowing on the coals I left with the knife to prepare the yam for eating. There was a nice place in my stomach that I had reserved for this yam and the sooner I filled it, the better.
If you have trouble finding a yam this big, then you are most likely searching for something that isn’t there anymore. I searched in the crocus bag, I searched in the corners, I peeked over the pot on the fire, but this thing that claimed most of my time today was gone. I assumed that there was some logical explanation for the missing yam. And out of all the explanations that Dowdy could have given me, I would have never guessed that he had given it away. Here I am, mister self righteous servant of the people, and there was an unmistakable twinge of rage that lingered in my heart over what should be seen as an amazingly generous act. Apparently, Cham, one of the poorest members of the community, had come by before I had finished by fresh, and Dowdy just handed the yam over to her as though it was nothing, no second thought, no tinge of remorse in its departure. When I asked Dowdy what the hell he was thinking, he merely replied that he was happy to have it to give. I don’t think it would’ve been too tactful of me to tell him about that spot I reserved in my stomach for it. All I could do was just except that, amidst all the hustlers, gangsters, and ganja, there is a certain grace in this culture that I had overlooked and that I could learn a great deal from, a little rule about what could be owned and what belongs to everybody.
In the end, that little spot in my stomach welcomed the other yams that, although smaller, quelled our hunger and fed an evening of story trading, stories about a yam, Yam Almighty, a story which slowly faded away as the sound of rain on the zinc roof persuaded a trance whose purpose has yet to be explained, a trance which occupies a good portion of the time that we are allowed to call ourselves alive. While hundreds of tourists exacerbated their Margarita induced highs, Dowdy and I slept and dreamed about all the giant yams we would never find and that no one would ever find because, unlike mountains or homeruns, yams are edible and found beneath the soil of an island of which, to the rest of the world, is only a coastline – white sands, blue waters, Rastafarians, and women in bikinis.
Morning came without the rain, and the sun dried the red soil of the Cockpits once again into a hard sandy crust which fertilized the blooming morning glories, whose nectar fed the great swallowtail butterfly, whose beauty provided a perfect target for the black-billed parrot. And the magnanimous vine that stretched out to choke the strongest Brasiletto tree in the forest reached up for something greater to hold on to, something more, someway to win the great, woodland struggle for solar nutrition, waiting for two more hungry Jamaicans.