So a few years ago, my wife and I were holidaying in Jamaica. My parents suggested we take a trip down to Black River, the capital of my parent’s district of residence, St Elizabeth. Black River is a coastal town that is situated at the mouth of a river by the same name. We bought some drinks and food and meandered down to the river dock with soothed bellies and greasy smiles. This was Claudia’s first visit, so we decided to surprise her with an introduction to the island’s alligators.
My father ran into an old friend at the dock, who insisted we wait for a particular boat and captain. He refused to explain why, saying only that we’d thank him when we got back. The jerk chicken and steam fish was still finding its final resting place in our stomachs, and a cool breeze was blowing in from the sea. We conferred without words and decided that the wait wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience.
About half an hour later we were introduced to a Goliath of a man, who we learnt was to be our boat’s captain and guide. We left on board, expecting to see a few unperturbed alligators from afar. My parents and I had taken this tour many times before. That afternoon however turned out to be a little special.
Many boats travel up and down a mile or so stretch of river, stopping here and there along the way, enabling the tourists to catch a sight of the odd gator. Fortunately for us, our skipper had built up a rapport with these fierce and completely wild animals. (Every now and then a few locals and tourists are snatched away from the banks.)
We stopped. Our man started to describe the history of the area, the river and its Jurassic inhabitants. I, having heard this a few times before, stopped listening and started gator-spotting. The captain hauled in my lost attention, when he started shouting toward a sunlight speckled stretch of banking. Claudia, now shaking, told me that the man-giant was calling an alligator to the boat. I laughed. Jamaicans are known for their humour. I figured he’d pull out a plastic gator and cause one of our elderly boat-mates to go into cardiac arrest. My scoffs we’re silenced, when slowly out of the shadows came an eight foot wild alligator, swimming towards our boat. Our guide, who was now some kind of animal wizard in my eyes, pulled out some food and fed the beast. He then uttered the words…
“Who wants to shake his hand?”
We all laughed, thinking he was joking. He posed the question again. A middle aged woman to our left asked, “Are you serious?” in the same voice a child would use, had it just been told it was going to Disney Land.
“Yah man!” He replied, almost fulfilling his Tourist Board daily quota of internationally accepted Jamaican slogans. “No problem!” (quota satisfied). He then, a little hesitantly, as though checking for permission, reached out and took the gator’s right hand. We all stopped talking, moving, breathing; unsure whether we were about to get a really special show! He then, with alligator paw in hand, turned to us and posed that insane question again.
NOTE: This was a private tour, and everyone on board were consenting adults.
We exhaled, there was a pause and then one by one a few us scurried to the side of the boat to shake a wild killing machine’s hand. The alligator took it all in its stride. It seemed as though it thought it were at an autograph signing; Diva-like, not even looking our way.
Now please don’t comment saying how irresponsible we were. I know this. There’s no need to remind me that the gator could have switched at any moment (just as wild animals do), pulled whoever happened to be holding its scaly hand overboard and eaten said tourist; creating hours of court time, therapy and news coverage.
What can I say? Adrenalin is one hell of a drug! This was our swimming with sharks – our base jumping – our going to Graceland, wearing a ‘King My Ass!’ t-shirt. (T-Shirt design – Copyright Sean J. Rankine – 2013) Whatever it was, it changed us.
We returned to the UK with a different perspective on things. We made changes; life altering changes. I think some of them led to us later abandoning the craziness of London and moving to the Kent coast and now Denmark. It wasn’t just the alligator encounter, it was the whole trip. I’ve visited Jamaica countless times, but that trip was different; perhaps because I was able to witness Claudia’s childlike awe and appreciation for everything she saw. Perhaps she made me appreciate the beauty, the people, the pace and everything else I had begun to take for granted about Jamaica and about life.
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