Growing Up Hippie – Living with the Rastafarians
written by Craig Issod – © 2012
Republishing allowed with credit…
I was born in Philadelphia in November of 1953 – a baby boomer, for certain, albeit on the younger end of that generation. Although many periods in history are full of upheaval and change, there is something unique about the speed and severity of the changes which started to occur as I entered primary school. The sequence of events are fairly well known, but to see them close at hand as a growing child was quite alarming.
I was 7 years old when JFK was elected and definitely remember all the hubbub. The country was ecstatic over our young and vibrant President and his beautiful family. The space race was on and I distinctly remember the feeling of pride as the first astronauts were conquering the unknown of space flight. The heroes of my youth were folks like Chuck Yeager, who flew the X-15 and John Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth. Those were heady times – but they seemed to come crashing down with the assassination of JFK. Most every member of my generation remembers exactly what they were doing at the very moment – and then, sadly, in the days that followed. I was in third grade at the time and remember our teacher sitting down and crying and telling us all. We kids also cried and were sent home early. The nation was transfixed as we watched events unfold from there.
For many Americans, this was the end of innocence – and while it may have been a faux innocence, it was never the less quite real to those of us who were children at the time.
In fairly quick succession from that date we experienced the riots of the 60’s – large sections of many cities burned to the ground by the poor and destitute who had so little hope in the fairness of the system that they sullied their own nests. Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King…all these murders caused more upheaval and loss of confidence in the promise of America. As I started into my teenage years, Vietnam was building up – causing yet another storm in our culture as young men were being conscripted to fight in foreign lands for a purpose which seemed to have little relation to our national defense. Meanwhile, on the home front, pollution, racial strife, poverty and a host of other problems seemed to cast a shadow over the American Dream which our parents had realized in the post war years.
Then, quickly on the heels of this suffering, came the counterculture era – with the promise of change and of shedding off the hateful acts and strife we had been experiencing on a nonstop basis. The Beatles entered the scene along with other rock bands. The youth of America started thinking that perhaps we could change things by living differently- escaping the chains of consumerism, war, dogmatic religion and our parents worldviews.
Again the scene shifted very quickly. The innocence of the early Beatle era morphed into various factions, from the raw sexual beats of the Rolling Stones and James Brown to the acid rock of Jimi Hendrix. I attended my first large rock festival at 15 at the Atlantic City Racetrack. It was 2 weeks prior to Woodstock and I remember leaving the parking lot at the concerts end and hearing all the cars and buses shouting “See You at Woodstock!”. While I never made it up to Yasgur’s Farm, I did have the honor of seeing most of the same acts at Atlantic City Rock festival and other such venues.
If the reader desires to know what it was like at the time, they would have to pretend that all roots and stakes had been pulled up from their lives and culture. It seemed like any day the formerly stable world around us could disintegrate. This might mean the unhappy masses marching up City Line Avenue with guns (the revolution) or the complete undoing of our government and republic…or even a mushroom cloud, as this was still the era of the arms race. I even had a few friends with atomic bomb shelters in their basements!
My personal journey was intimately woven into these troubled times. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were just part of the trip. The undercurrent was that of many young people trying to find their way in the world i.e. “what am I going to do either in response to this mess?”…”or as a reaction to it?” I can’t admit to being particularly sane or mature at the time, so I would be misleading the reader to claim that my stories and experiences were based on intelligent choices that I made after careful examination of the options. Rather I think I, and eventually we (with my wife), were picked up by the waves of the time and tumbled around. In some ways I am probably lucky to have gotten out alive. I know many who didn’t make it, succumbing to drug overdoses, madness, crimes or accidents.
Following is just one of my experiences.
Living and Loving with the Rastas – a teenage trip of discovery to Jamaica.
Soon after my childhood sweetheart moved in with me at age 18, we both developed a case of wanderlust. Neither of us had traveled very much other than occasional family vacations and one cross country trip which I took with a friend when I was 16.
Both of us had been working jobs in the center city Philadelphia area, and although it was an interesting experience we knew that eventually we’d want to leave the city of our birth and experience the wider world. We hatched a plan to save up some money and take a trip to Jamaica, a place which seemed quite exotic at the time! Besides, we heard they had some decent pot at very low prices!
In order to travel on the cheap, we hitchhiked down the east coast to Miami and caught a flight from there using “student fares”, a low cost option which existed at the time. The flight ended up costing us $52 round trip! Armed with a couple hundred dollars in cash, no reservations of any type and our small suitcases, we headed for the promised land.
We arrived with our plane load of tourists into Montego Bay at about 9PM. Jamaican customs were screening people to make certain they had some money on them…some long haired hippie types who were broke were sent right back on the same plane. We had our stash of saved cash, so made it through that part of the screening, although the customs officials wanted to know what I intended to do with the giant strainer in my suitcase. Although it was brought for straining the seeds out of marijuana, we convinced them that we were going to use it to strain native fruits and vegetables.
After customs we walked outside the airport and were solicited by a cab driver who pulled some exotic fruits from his trunk, cut them and gave them to us to eat. The fruit was similar to a modern Kiwi, very sweet and delicious. He then offered to take a group of us to a hotel where he claimed we would be very happy-code for that there was plenty of pot, drink, prostitutes or whatever else we needed. We had been warned before going to the island that the first thing we should do is escape Montego Bay and hightail it to Negril, the laid-back beach town a couple hours down the coast. Being late at night, however, we had little choice-so off to the hotel we went. I remember driving through large fields of sugarcane on the way, the smell of the burning stalks permeated the air in the valley were were driving though. After about 40 minutes we arrived at the recommended lodging.
What a dive! Sure, it was cheap…maybe $10 a night, but it didn’t even have a mattress – just some springs with a couple pieces of cardboard on it. Since most of the guests intended to party until they were knocked out in one way or another, perhaps they didn’t care. It was easy to see that our friends had given us great advice – get out of that town as soon as possible!
Early the next day we headed by bus to Negril to begin our real adventure. The bus trip itself was educational, with local natives bringing chickens on board, hairpin turns on top of high cliffs and the usually honking of horns so common on narrow roads in the Caribbean. After a three hour trip, we arrived in the seaside town of Negril.
At the time, Negril was a REALLY sleepy town, not the tourist mecca it is today. In fact, it had only been a few weeks since they had installed the first electricity into the town. The bus dropped us along the dirt road, and some locals told us to walk up the hill into town for a room. The lodgings were in the homes of the local folks…..small bungalows with no indoor plumbing and curtains instead of doors between the rooms. A very nice lady took us in for $5 a night, a rate which also included some food. We felt we had finally arrived, and settled into the beautiful scene of a beachfront fishing village. We purchased exotic fruits and vegetables with strange names and breakfasted on plantain dishes and bananas. This being Jamaica, there was no shortage of pot, and a few dollars bought a nice baggie full from our hosts elder son. Although pot was not officially legal in Jamaica, it could be purchased most anywhere and smoked with absolutely none of the paranoia which was so common back in the US. This in itself made the experience of smoking the herb vastly more satisfying. I remember walking down a dirt road in the countryside with some friends and Jamaicans and simply sitting down by the side of the road and smoking pot – and then enjoying the cows, birds and nature which surrounded us.
After a few days we befriended a local fisherman named Ken. He was a handsome and well kept guy – quite clean cut and very nice and polite. He owned his own small dinghy with an outboard and would go out with nets to fish the local waters each day. We were amazed that someone could have so mellow of a life and yet live in relative comfort…plenty to eat, a boat and most of the other basics of life. Things were certainly different here than back in Philadelphia, where life seemed to be one big rat race……
After hanging with Ken for a day or two, he pulled us aside for a personal chat and said “you folks don’t belong here in town. I have some people I’d like you to meet”. We figured anyone who was alright with Ken was fine by us, so we answered in the affirmative.
He took us on a long walk up the coast road. For those who know Negril, this is past the caves and cliffs where the road eventually gets lost in the bush. At some point we turned inland and walked down a rugged path leading into the hills. The path was largely over volcanic rock, and I remember thinking that no motor vehicle-not even a motorcycle-could have made it over these hills and rocks.
After some additional trekking, we came upon a small clearing in the woods which was about 100 feet square. Some downed logs were laid out in a semi-circle. Sitting on these logs were some of the strangest looking people we had ever met! The reader must remember that in 1971 Rastafarians were not yet part of popular culture – this was years before the Reggae revolution hit America!
The strange men (they were all male) looked at Martha and I with their glassy and wild looking eyes…so wild, in fact, that I remember having thoughts as to whether this was going to be one of my last moments on the planet! After all, we were way back in the woods and, if these folks had violent intentions, we would simply never be heard from or found again!
Luckily, what unfolded in the next few moments and for the remainder of our trip was anything but violent. The crazy looking dude on my right turned to me and said “peace, mon (man) – brotherhood…..love, man. We are all one”.
WOW……this was really far-out for a upper class white guy from the Main Line of Philadelphia! Here were these crazy looking dudes saying words to me that no one had ever said before! Moreover, they were dead serious – they meant what they said.
They were smoking grass in a water pipe – but would only smoke it after they said a prayer to Haile Selassie – King of Ethiopia and patron saint of Rastafarians. Perhaps we had stumbled into a “reasoning” described in the Rasta article at Wikipedia as:
“A reasoning is a simple event where the Rastas gather, smoke cannabis (“ganja”), and discuss ethical, social, and religious issues. The person honored by being allowed to light the herb says a short prayer beforehand, and the ganja is passed in a clockwise fashion except in time of war when it is passed counterclockwise.”
Whatever it was, it felt real and honest and spiritual. In the coming hours, days and weeks we learned a lot about these fine people and their world views, some of which I will impart in later segments of this story.
“But a Rasta never Marry, Cause a Rasta Never Sorry”
The tune still sticks in my head – it was part of a walking song our Jamaican friends called out as they trekked over the hills and ravines leading us to their bush outposts. Rastafarians are a male-centric sect, and the song reflected the common belief. We never, for instance, met a Rasta couple nor a female, other than American, who believed in their creed.
The particular group of Rastamen we met and lived with were mostly younger dudes, but they had a special uncle they wanted us to meet. Their uncle, named Maurice, turned out to be a well known character both around Negril and also in parts of the States, as he was a connection for the “herb” for many. Now, don’t get me wrong – Maurice was not a drug dealer, but rather a very poor man who lived deep in the bush and tried to be as self sufficient as possible. The herb (marijuana) is a part of life for most males in Jamaica, and I’m sure Maurice made some of his food money from hooking up Americans with the sacred herb.
And so we started our trek back to meet Maurice, with one stop on the way. Our new friends took us to a small hut in which a young American woman lived. It turned out she was from our neck of the woods (Philadelphia) and had broken her legs while in the backcountry there. The Rastas were helping nurse her back to health so she would be able to travel back to the states. She was very self assured and apparently had overstayed her visa and was camping out in the back country – called the “bush” in Jamaica. She was bringing in a little bit of income by packing herb into record albums and shipping it back to the states. The delicate care that the Rasta men were providing for this lone foreign female was another indication of their tolerance and gentleness.
Further and further into the hills we climbed – the volcanic rock made for very slow going, and shoes were easily torn. Finally we got to the top of a rock outcropping a couple miles inland from the ocean. On the top of this outcropping was a small lean-to with open sides and a steel bed frame – and there sat our soon to be good friend, Maurice! Lest you think Maurice is a fictional character, let me counter that with a picture of the great man himself. Notice the floor of volcanic rock. In this picture, Maurice is working up some colorful vegetables for one of our nightly vegetarians easts!
OK, so you see, Maurice was very real as was his little lean-to as well as his bed which consisted of a metal frame with cardboard on the top.
We quickly became good friends with Maurice as well as with the rest of the younger Rasta gang, many of whom turned out to be related to each other! Upon further examination of the various relationships, I came to the conclusion that many of these Rastas were the Jamaican equivalent of US “Hippies”. They were tired of living the “straight” life of hard work and servitude on the farms and scraping out an existence. Their parents were very religious and hard working Christians, which seemed in the case of these people NOT to be an empowering religion, but one where one accepts their place in life – in this case a HARD place! So the teenagers, like teens everywhere, rebelled. However, instead of running away to San Francisco or NYC, they simply walked 1/4 mile behind their homes and set up camp under an overhanging rock or in a small cardboard sided shack. Instead of going to work each day, they simply enjoyed life – which is possible without too much work in a climate where fruit hangs from many trees and no heat or AC is needed. Rastas are vegetarian, and they prefer to eat quite low on the food chain, so meals are not expensive for them.
Home for some of the younger Rastas were places like under the outcropping of a rock – or a tiny shack back in the woods made of scraps of tin. None of the modern conveniences were available – no running water, no bathrooms, no electric, phone, etc. but this made no difference at all. Life was a matter of enjoying the fruits of the earth and others company and also pursuing spiritual matters.
We soon developed a mutual aid deal. Martha and I would walk into town each day and pick up a few staples – maybe some sugar and some flour, etc. – along with the large white bakery bags which Rastafarians use to roll their spliffs (large marijuana cigarettes) . We would bring these goodies up to Maurices shack and then spend a couple hours making these great dinners – all the while chatting about the state of the world. Sunset would mark the end of our visits, and we would walk back to our rented room, which was in the house of their Christian parents up by the coast road. Our room in the shack cost us $10. for the week. This included the giant roaches so prevalent in the tropics – we’d get quite a fright when they started crawling on us!
The parents lived in a 2 room cement block shack near the shore road. They were typical working Jamaicans and, especially compared to the Rasta, had a very hard life. Each day the father would go off to work with his trusty old donkey – probably carrying goods to those who were located in the back woods. The mother worked hard at various crafts and small jobs. These folks were church going, and one day invited us to a service, which we gladly attended. The services were evangelical in nature, however we left with the impression that the average Jamaicans were still somewhat ensconced in Colonial times…that being very poor and subservient. This somewhat clarified the Rasta movement, which seemed to be telling adherents that they were as good or better than anyone else, whether black, brown or white…or whether rich or poor. Of course, there was also a sexist component to the Rastafarian world view – women were simply not included. Some of the local women told me that the herb (marijuana) made they crazy. As is true in many cultures, even the curse words were demeaning to females. “Rasclot”, “Bloodclot” and “Bummbleclot” were three prevalent swear words, both referring to a womens menstral cycle. (blood clot).
As the weeks unfolded, we truly lived in the moment – we looked neither forward or backwards, but rather enjoyed the company, the food and the weather. Each day was somewhat similar – other than the engaging conversation – which taught me a lot about the backgrounds and culture of our hosts.
According to the Rastas, the current state of things and their presence in Jamaica was all part of “Babylon”, a biblical reference to a place they were not supposed to be. They were shipped there from Africa and placed into a life of poverty and servitude where their real God (Jah). Babylon refers more generally to any system that oppresses or discriminates against all peoples – this would include the police, government, churches and others who maintained the status quo.
Lest you think the Rastafarians are naive, Maurice had vast experience in other parts of the world. He had been in the Cuban army and many other places abroad. As a member of the older generation, he had clearly seem the war, strife, poverty and class systems which have kept he and his people down for centuries. After experiencing all of this misery, living in the woods in his native Jamaica was a fine retirement.
The weeks we spent with Maurice and his family and friends seemed like a lifetime. We lived each day to it’s fullest, neither looking behind or ahead. The only date we ever kept in mind was the end of our travel visa, which was three weeks from our arrival. Despite our wanting to stay forever, reality reared it’s ugly head and two days prior to our visa end, we had to make arrangements for a return flight.
We headed toward Negril Center to find a phone and on the way passed some relatively modern houses which had been built along the coast road. A few even had recently installed electricity. It was here where we became introduced to the new phenomenon known as Reggae. This was years prior to the commercialisation of Reggae – the world had not yet heard of Bob Marley nor the other famous island artists. But the sound of Reggae grew naturally out of the dirt, sweat and sufferings of the Jamaican people, and was starting to be heard on car radios and music systems in a small restaurants. One of the modern houses had set a large speaker outside in their front yard and it was blaring a Reggae beat at ground shaking volume. This had attracted hundreds of locals who were gathered right in the street and instinctively bopping up and down to the beat. Such a scene was something that we felt honored to witness – the ability of people to just drop their everyday lives and live in the moment…grooving in the beat. Years later we became big fans of Bob Marley and were lucky enough to see him in concert twice. He was able to entrance the concert audience, in excess of 10,000 people, to feel and move to the same beat – truly magical. Contrary to our everyday consciousness, there is primal heart which beats within us – possibly related to our heartbeat, which makes us all on the same wavelength when we take the time to feel it.
Alas, it was time to return to the states! Some Americans we knew, such as the lady with the broken leg in the backwoods cabin mentioned earlier, simply overstayed their visa and settled down for the long run. We considered this, but realistically had no way of stretching our money nor making any more. Our obligations were few and the playful side of my brain imagined a stress free life living in the backwoods of this remote island. Yet it was not to be, so off to the airport we arranged the return trip. Our final night in Negril was spent with a good friend from back home named Tony, who had taken up residence in one of the modern houses with some Americans who he had met. They had an extra bedroom as well as a modern bath with shower – wow, what a feeling taking a real shower after weeks in the jungle!
That last night sticks in my mind as being somewhat strange – more like being back in the states than being abroad. The newer house and clean baths seemed out of place and so did our American compatriots. We all sat together and smoked some pot and once we were high, our friend Tony went into one of his famous operatic acts….which, in this case, was reciting the lyrics, while acting out an entire Procol Harem album called Shine on Brightly. Imagine, if you will, am impish looking hippie (see airport picture), stoned out of his mind, acting out and reciting such words with spirit – and the surprise of our hosts when he went into this mode. At first, they just listened and watched in amazement, but soon he had them backed up against the wall shaking his trembling finger at them, and reciting:
“In the darkness of the night, only occasionally relieved by glimpses of Nirvana as seen through other people’s windows, wallowing in a morass of self-despair made only more painful by the knowledge that all I am is of my own making”
“When everything around me, even the kitchen ceiling, has collapsed and crumbled without warning. And I am left, standing alive and well, looking up and wondering why and wherefore.”
To put it mildly, they freaked out. We knew Tony, so were comforted by the fact that this was one of his known acts – he was, in effect, putting on a show for us all. But they had never seen anything like it, and to this day I remember the look on their faces!
Arriving back into the US, we experienced quite a culture shock! Instead of living in the present, it seemed to us that most people were running around like chickens with their heads cut off – chasing often-imaginary or unattainable goals. We also found, strangely enough, that we no longer desired to smoke grass as we had done in our earlier teens. This was because it was done so much differently in the US, having all the limitations brought about by paranoia, high prices, lack of nature to commune with, etc. It was almost comical, after smoking cigar-sized “spliffs”, to see our friends rolling up skinny joints and then bogarting (not sharing) them. Marijuana here seemed to lack most all of the spiritual aspects which the Rasta revered it for.
The experience made us look at life differently. Whereas before we had been aimless teens, we now had some direction. We felt it necessary to leave the urban environs of Philadelphia and explore options for living more independently and closer to nature. This started us on a quest which would contain many stories of its’ own, some which will be told in future writings.