Respect Mon

Cayman Islands – I picked up two Jamaicans hitchhiking yesterday. Although I did not know them, I gave them a ride, not just down the road apiece, but all the way to their final destination.

What! Am I stark, raving mad!? As any good, red-blooded American knows, giving rides to strangers dramatically increases one's probability of becoming some crazed loony's lampshade, liver and onions dinner or it guarantees that one will be robbed and stranded in the middle of the Mojave desert. Sensible people do not give rides to strangers. And for good reason. If the stranger does not have their own Ford Explorer or Chevy Suburban, what kind of person are they, a deranged psycho, recently released from prison or just plain up to no good? Sad to say, in America any of these are quite likely.

The population of Grand Cayman Island is roughly 37,000. About half of the residents are expatriates. We are an eclectic mixture of people from all parts of the world, Canada, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Switzerland, and the United States of America. However, a large portion of the Cayman Island's labor force comes from nearby Jamaica. Yah mon.

A bunch of scary Jamiacans, Caymanians and a Honduran

The stereotype Jamaican which readily come to mind are

(A) the baldheaded, smooth-talking, voodoo practitioner selling lemon-lime soda while trying to kill James Bond. The second stereotype, is (B), that of red-eyed, spliff-smoking Rastafarians with dreadlocks down to their buttocks, who spend the day sitting around the street corners in a stupor listening to Bob Marley while seeking ways to kill whitey for his money. Yah mon, kill da white mon. Sorry to disappoint any narrow minded pinheads out there, but, neither (A) nor (B) is true. I have yet to find a bloody chicken head in my bed. No Jamaican has tried to kill me for five Caymanian dollars to buy more ganja. Nope, such stereotyping does not exist on the Cayman Islands. It is the stuff of movies and MTV videos. To be sure, there may be a fair amount of nasty business on Jamaica, but then Jamaica boasts some of the world's most serious poverty. Crime and poverty have a long-standing symbiotic relationship.

"Yah mon." That's what's real. The expression, "yah mon," is a Jamaican pronunciation of "yeah man." It has been worked to death to mock the residents of the Caribbean. "Yah mon." Y'all go right on an' make fun of the way they don't speak no good 'Merican…DUDE!

The fact is all peoples have their own colloquialisms, some clever, some quaint, some hilarious, some annoying and some kick ass Bro! That's part of what makes language fun. "Yah mon." It's part of the island experience. Recently, however, I've come across another Jamaican saying, not so quaint, not so well known. It is an expression that is simple but insightful.

"Respect mon."

I can thank Hurricane Ivan for the opportunity to learn the meaning of that expression. Aside from being one of four major hurricanes to batter Florida in 2004, Hurricane Ivan practically wiped Grand Cayman Island off the map. Moving at an agonizingly slow eight mph, the hurricane's eye crept along the south coast 21 miles offshore. Grand Cayman got battered by Ivan's 150 mph sustained winds, was drowned by a sea surge of 8–10 feet and was pounded by twenty to thirty foot waves. The highest point on the Grand Cayman island is only 62 feet. So strong was the hurricane, that at the height of the storm, the sea met across the island cutting it in half. All of the foliage was either uprooted and blown away or bent over and stripped. Seventy per cent of the island's buildings received severe damage and 9,000 people were left homeless. One ocean front condo complex was lifted off its foundations and moved 50 yards, clear across the road. Multimillion-dollar homes had waves crashing straight through the ground floor.

Grand Cayman is now rebuilding. One result of Ivan's devastation is that the disaster has brought segments of the community closer together that might not have met up otherwise.

My wife works for a company whose owners spent a fortune of their own money to evacuate their employees to safety and then proceeded to house them until it was safe to return. Neither was their effort a petty cash operation nor was it limited to the brass and elite. That company flew all of us, who wanted to go off the island to safety before Ivan the Terrible recreated Sherman's March on our island. When I say all of us, excluding the brave souls who remained, I mean families and our pets. There was no favoritism. The company evacuated all of us from the top to the bottom and everyone was given equally comfortable housing, first in Houston and then in condos on lesser-damaged Cayman Brac. Imagine that, a billion dollar company which places a large value on human life. This is contrary to what many of us believe, but then this was a privately owned company. Many privately owned companies do indeed take care of their employees. It's not only the human thing to do but also it's good business.

Austin, Venceroy, the Author, Howard Lee and the kids stuck on The Brac watching the limpet races

While in Houston everyone watched satellite images of Ivan, now a category five hurricane, on the Weather Channel. Ivan was headed straight for Florida via Grand Cayman. There was scant information about Grand Cayman but we knew it had to be bad. My wife's company sprang to action and began a relief operation. The people who had been left behind would need medical, and camping supplies as well as food and more vital, they would need water. Since I had a rental car, I became one of the key personnel to procure supplies. I also shuttled many of the Jamaican and Caymanian field workers around so they could replace some of their lost possessions. As a result I got to know them quite well.

After ten days, phase two of the company's relief plan saw us moved into condos on Grand Cayman's sister island, Cayman Brac. The Brac, as it's called here, is a great place to visit for about a day but it has to be one of the most dull places on the face of the earth. Out of boredom, limpets commit suicide for adventure on The Brac. My role in the relief operation changed from courier to an unofficial Human Resources Psychologist. My duty was to be liaison between management and the field works trapped in the Tedium Condos. Most of the field workers were Jamaicans. I made some good friends. And it was on The Brac after Hurricane Ivan, that first I heard the phrase, "Respect mon."

It so happened that the company had bought high-topped, steel-tipped work boots for all the field workers. Such a work boot would be a necessary item if one planned to tromp around in terrain littered with broken glass, crumbled buildings and smashed cars. Of course slip-ups are bound to happen.

One of my Jamaican buddies didn't get the right size work boot. Where were his shoes? They were gone AWOL and he was mad as hell. With no management people to whom he could complain, the bootless man came to me. I told him I'd look into it and I did. I couldn't find his shoes. But, I went back to him and I apologized. I told him I didn't know what happened to his work boots, but that if I had bought the shoes in Houston he would either have them or I would have told him why he didn't. This is all he wanted to hear. Problem solved. He didn't say thanks. Instead, he said, "Respect mon." That was it. His anger was diffused.

Respect mon.

That's what it's all about isn't it? In Jamaican culture this phrase says heaps. They use it when we Americans might say "hey, thanks buddy." But it means something much more than thanks. It means, "you have treated me as an equal out of respect, you have done what you can to make my life more manageable out of respect. And for this, you have my respect."

Ashton rebuilding our house

Respect mon. What a novel concept. It's something too many people in the U.S.A. have not learned to acknowledge or to express. As a people, America would do better if we had more respect mon for each other and for humanity in general. In fact, aren't America's current problems in the Middle East the result of our lack of respect for decades? They are.

Respect mon.

Two weeks after returning to Grand Cayman, I was driving down South Sound road, the area hardest hit by Ivan the Terrible. Once a neighborhood of glamorous homes, South Sound Road looks like a Caribbean Fallujah without the dead civilians. That was when I saw two Jamaicans lugging a bucket full of tools, thumbing for a ride. They were on their way to somebody's house to help rebuild it. I stopped. I had to. It was the only real, human choice I had. The Jamaicans and I come from two radically different places and cultures but now we live in the same place. We've been through the trauma of the storm and are facing the same momentous task of putting our island world back to rights.

I stopped and gave the Jamaicans a ride out of respect. They understood this and returned it.

Respect mon.

Elizabeth Gyllensvard contributed greatly to this article.

December 20, 2004