The Toyota Hilux is marketed — at least in England and other left-hand-drive countries — as “the world’s toughest pickup.” There’s a lot to unpack here: the “world’s toughest,” yet not sold in America, land not only of the free and home of the brave but also of the Ford F-150, and also “toughest,” despite a relatively small 4-cylinder engine and more compact chassis.
There is quite a lot I notice about the interior of the Hilux that I haven’t noticed before this particular ride: comfortable, spacious seating, modern infotainment amenities. I focus intently on these details, you see, to avoid the nauseating scene out the window, bracing one hand against the roof of the cab for stability and fumbling with my phone in the other. I haven’t the slightest idea where the seatbelt is, not that I would be able to buckle it if I wanted to.
My uncle’s driver is named Blacks, a younger man of average stature fond of patois gospel radio and the local soccer scores. The Hilux handles Blacks’ wild driving with elegance, particularly as he steers with one hand and swats at mosquitoes with the other through each terrifying hairpin turn. I can only imagine what that man could do with some race fuel and an Aston Martin. Mind you, I’m not sure I want to know.
The texts on my phone come just as fast as the flashing scenery: yes, Dad, we’re on our way to the airport. Yes, I do have my passports. Yes, my flight does take off in an hour. Yes, we will make it, because as Google finally tells me, we are hurtling through the tight, potholed streets of Kingston, Jamaica going 90mph, or 145 km/hr, all because one case of COVID-19 has landed upon the country’s shores. “Tank Gad” we’re in the world’s toughest pickup, because from there on out, the world was about to get a heck of a lot tougher.
On March 10, 2020, I fly from Seattle to Kingston, missing a week of junior year high school classes to train with the U-17 national soccer team, the culmination of years of hard work and the final achievement of a longstanding dream to represent my dad’s homeland in my sport. The trip is already chaotic: I’m trying to end my three-month standoff with Jamaica’s Passport and Immigration Control office; after getting my Jamaican citizenship by descent, I’ve twice been denied a passport, first for sending a photo with the wrong measurements and then the wrong background color. I’m coincidentally — and conveniently! — waiting on my new U.S. passport, which I hadn’t realized was about to expire and sent for expedited processing a mere week before. I churn out English papers and French homework à la Chromebook in the airport. I’m also nursing Achilles tendonitis, some intense sleep deprivation and the fallout from a not-so-great calculus midterm.
By the time I make it onto my connecting flight in Florida — new U.S. passport still in its Priority mail box — I think all my woes are over. Both passports in hand! Homework — not done, but certainly manageable! Tendonitis — not healed, but hey, I can jog on it! There wasn’t much I could do about the math exam — save for completely abolishing the discipline of calculus, which I’m still imploring of math departments everywhere — but the worst must be behind me!
The gate agent in Fort Lauderdale scans my U.S. passport for recent travel to China and Iran, then-hotspots for the virus — “nice and clean, huh,” he said, to which I respond “sir, this was literally issued yesterday.” Blacks picks me up at Norman Manley Airport and takes me to my family’s house in New Kingston. I spend a night there, munch on oxtail and plantain, give some love to my uncle’s mastiff, Tuffy, attend a local Red Stripe Premier League game and finally finish my French conjugations before Blacks ports me to training camp at the University of the West Indies.
At camp, we’re put through two days of two-a-day trainings; morning fitness tests — not fun — and evening scrimmages — very fun. I play well. Then, on day three, halfway through camp, the head coach pulls us aside after breakfast and informs us that the Jamaica Football Federation has recommended we cut camp short. There has been one confirmed case of COVID-19, and it is at the University of West Indies, he said. It is time to go home.
Keep in mind, now, that home for most of the players at this camp is at most an hour away. For myself and a few other overseas players — local speak for those of us who now lived in the United States or Canada and held citizenship not by birth but by descent — getting home is no small task. Seattle is a border and three flights away. It’s hard enough trying to get to Kingston without nasty layovers, let alone trying to coordinate said flights under threat of national lockdown.
Because one of my family members is immunocompromised, and because I am training in a University of the West Indies facility where this first ill patient is being treated, we decide it is unwise for me to go back to my uncle’s home. But Blacks, he tells me, is happy to get me to the airport; they’re booking the flight now. “Anabel, I’ve got you on a 5:15 flight if you can make it” — my uncle. “Bel, Uncle Bruce has you on a 5:15 flight. Can you make it?” – my dad. Me: “Blacks, I have a 5:15 flight. Can we make it?”
It is 4:30 p.m.. We are now in the middle of a classic afternoon Caribbean squall, sheets of rain pouring down and pooling in alleys. It’s like traveling through a claustrophobic car wash at 90mph.
Unsurprisingly, I do not make the flight, though I do get chastised by a security guard at the airport for banging on the door of the JetBlue gate agent. She is eating her sandwich. She will not call the plane back, nor will she let me onto the tarmac to sprint after it. She also tells me that it is the last flight out of the day, so I’ll be in Jamaica for another night, unless I want to drive three hours north through the mountains to Montego Bay. Poor Blacks has already been through enough; hotel it is.
I check into a hotel in New Kingston and set ten alarms for 4 a.m., when Blacks is to pick me up to head back to Florida. I stay in Florida for a while with my dad — he had been working in Fort Lauderdale, which in the end proved to be quite fortuitous — then finally board Alaska Flight 122 back home.
I land in Seattle March 18 and turn seventeen on March 20. My best friend Emma comes over, and we bake a delightful box cake.
She was the last friend I saw for months.