The Grenadines paradise just over the horizon

ALAN PHILLIPS January 22 1966

The Grenadines paradise just over the horizon

ALAN PHILLIPS January 22 1966

The Grenadines paradise just over the horizon

Here are 120-odd wisps of land seldom shown on maps, the least known of the West Indian islands, lazing under endless sky and molten sun, remote havens of yesterday


I LOUNGED BENEATH billowing sails as St. Vincent receded behind The Whistler, and gazed with anticipation at the seascape opening southward: a profusion of rocks and islands, low sand cays like floating seabirds, conical peaks like anthills — the Grenadines, least known of the West Indian islands.

For sixty miles they smudged the horizon, 120-odd wisps of land of which the five largest arc each five to thirteen square miles. The renaissance in the rum belt wrought by the jet plane and the packaged tour has not yet penetrated this Windward group. The nearest airstrips are St. Vincent and Grenada, their governing islands. They have no written history. They seldom show on a map. They drowse beneath a molten sun thirteen degrees above the equator, primitive fragments of Africa transplanted to the New World by the vanished empire-builders of Europe, remote in time as well as space, romantic in the true sense.

A yacht, chartered out of Antigua at two hundred dollars a day, was beating coquettishly upwind, bound for some Grenadine anchorage. I didn't envy its four pampered passengers. I hoped to do it the hard but free way: via the stick-and-rag fleet, native sloops and schooners.

Whether this could be done I didn’t know. Officials in the tiny British colony of St. Vincent had known little about what they jestingly called their colonies. Even the northernmost, Bequia, nine miles by the daily Whistler, is still the island of escape, where other Windward islanders seek respite from their task of transforming tropic Edens into salubrious extensions of Florida’s Palm Beach.

Our schooner pitched and tossed. A sea broke over her deck. The passengers, roused from their semi-seasick coma, swore and laughed. A husky Negro crewman, stretched out in the lifeboat, paid no attention; he was absorbed in a comic book; Travel In The Space Ape.

Ahead, seven miles long, Bequia sprawled like some somnolent sea monster. With tantalizing slowness its spine became a central ridge. Its flanks became valleys lushly upholstered in «reen. Then the volcanic rock of a headland loomed and we entered Admiralty Bay.

From all around green hills sloped down to a vivid expanse of blue. The captain, in a striped shirt and baseball hat, collected the fares: one Beewee (British West Indies) dollar — sixty cents. The Whistler skirted an elegant yacht with laundry strung on its rigging, two big black sailing schooners straight out of an MGM pirate epic, and sidled into a small Tshaped jetty. It was crowded with people of

every hue, from espresso to café au lait. The Whistler’s docking was a social occasion.

I extricated my bags from the welter of goods piling up on the jetty and surveyed Port Elizabeth, better known as The Harbor. Behind a flower-tinted beach littered with ship’s parts, beyond a gold umbrella of two-hundred-yearold almond trees, a strip of asphalt curved in front of green-garnished, sun-faded buildings: a police station, The People’s Store, Barclay’s Bank, an Anglican church. Men lounged on a mast propped on oil drums. Women gossiped. Boys dived naked off a schooner tilted for tarring in the shallows. The Whistler swung out to anchor and I saw her in an entirely new light: as a sort of time machine shuttling back and forth between two centuries.

For a Beewee dollar a small boy rowed me over to the next cove and left me on a beach in front of the Sunny Caribbee Hotel, nine gaslit rooms sans electric light, telephone, TV and morning paper, built from the salvaged timbers of ships torpedoed in World War II.

“We get two kinds of guests,” said the manageress, Sally Littler, an attractive former U. S. airline stewardess. “Those who come for a few weeks and get restless after a day, and those who come for a day and stay for weeks.”

A room with meals was twelve Canadian dollars a day. A rum punch was forty-five cents. And in front of the hammocks slung on that wide, cool, comfortable veranda the island passed in review, silhouetted against the sea, a living mural of the Grenadine economy: an old man leading a sheep on a vine-plaited halter: a woman in a violent cotton print, clutching some roots; a pantless boy in a black beret, munching a dripping mango; a girl in a tight sweater, walking as if she followed some unseen Pied Piper, balancing on her head a box of bait fish. Fish, fruit, vegetables, animals — the economy of the past.

I walked over the island’s central ridge to a bayside village called Friendship, a few hillside houses, a few families making farine — grinding long white cassava roots, baking out the poisonous prussic acid. Four white flecks on the sea grew into four twenty-six-foot boats, with six men in each, perhaps the last of their venturesome breed to hunt whales in sailboats with hand-thrown harpoons.

They jumped out into the surf, barelegged, knives on hips. They weren’t talking much; they had had a chance at a whale today and missed. They unloaded their ballast stones, laid out bleached-white whale ribs on the sand, and

rolled up their boats.

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In the “let-go season” everyone does


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“Come. Come. Up. Up! . . . Lovely.”

The captain of the first boat chocked it up with the whale’s round vertebrae while his harpooner silently honed and greased his barb. An onlooker brandished a pole. "Big floatin' island,” he mocked, “an’ he miss it.”

An argument broke out. staccato, loud. The captain spoke with authority. “He fire in time but he fire too low, and iron pull out of blubber.” The onlooker with the pole drove it harpoonlike into the sand. “I should been dere,” he said, and the argument broke up in laughter.

“What happens when that harpoon goes in and holds?” I asked the captain.

"Man. we goin’ so fast and far sometimes whole boat under water. Sometimes whale’s tail hit us, break man’s back.” He sluiced his feet from his boat cask. He had hunted for three months under that searing sun for a share in two whales. “One good big whale run sixty-five feet, worth three thousand dollars,” he said. “So maybe get fise hundred dollars or don’t get five cents.” He shrugged. He had the quiet assurance of a man who lives with risk.

No footprints in the sand

In a few days a schooner came in from Cannouan, twenty - eight miles south. Its skipper, Bartholomew Burke, thickset and coalblack, deliberated half a day before naming a charter price: twenty-one dollars,

Canadian, a day.

“Including food, of course?”

He mulled this over, nodded. 1 took out my wallet. “And three dollars a Wlay for fuel oil.”

I laughed. He had spent this halfday figuring strategy. Still, for less than an Antigua hotel room 1 had at my disposal a fifty-foot, four-man, auxilliary-engined schooner.

For a week 1 explored deserted islands, Isle de Quatre, Baliceaux, Battowia, eating fish and bananas three times a day. 1 swam in blue-green lagoons so pellucid the boat seemed to float on air, so secluded their beaches bore no other footprints but mine.

We reached Charlestown Bay in Cannouan, five square miles shaped like a seahorse, in a grey blur of rain, the first in weeks. This was March, the dry season. I realized what it meant when I rented a small cramped room in the village. My water ration was one quart a day. If I cleaned my teeth, I went unwashed. And after I used the water the chickens drank it.

On the hillside above the village sixteen people were digging a pit as a catchment,” a reservoir for rainwater, the only public-works project in the islands. A man dumped a spadeful of dirt on a wooden tray. Another lifted it up to a girl on an oil drum. Then she handed it up to a woman who passed it on to another who carried it away on her head.

“Government pay well?” I asked the foreman.

"Yeah man. $1.80 a day [$1.08 Canadian].” His grin faded. “Girl, you workin’? Pass de dirt or 1 send home!” But nothing he could say could speed that process.

Next day a stalwart young man in puttees, black shorts and grey shirt called upon me. “Corporal Morgan,” he said. “Policeman in charge, at your service.”

He showed me the ivory beaches, the bush-and-cacti-tufted hillsides that leveled on top to a boulder-strewn moor. It was like so many Grenadines: picturesque and incongruous. The moors resembled Scotland, the hillsides Arizona, the beaches the lush, tropical South Seas.

None of Cannouan’s 586 people own cars. As we walked, slowly dehydrating on an island that had no streams, we startled cows, sheep and goats that would die in this drought unless their owners let them go to find their own food and moisture.

“What we call the let-go season just startin',” Morgan said. “People arc lookin' at each other. You let go. We all let go. Stock wander all over the island.”

By next month every garden, every bush, would be stripped bare. “We singe the spines off the cactus and they eats them,” Morgan said. "They eats the dry sticks. You have to be chasin’ them, impoundin' them, shootin' them. You gets stealin’. After alcoholic beverages fella feels gay, he want a fête, and catch anyone’s animal for a night cook. It's cause of trouble. Court cases. You can't cope. I always have a headache in the season."

At week’s end 1 caught a fifty-cent ride on the twice-weekly mail boat to Union, five rugged square miles that rise a thousand feet to two brooding cliffs. Its port, Clifton, lay in the cleft of two hills. On its curving beach, cluttered with rowboats and conch shells, the carcass of a schooner lay bleaching between clusters of seagrape. A sign on a shuttered abandoned building read ADAMS HOTEL. Behind it huts and houses straggled up the slopes from the sand flats.

For a dollar a night the district officer let me use the government guest house, an ex-mansion sited magnificently on a hill commanding the harbor. Its two-foot fortresslike walls recalled the days ot sugar and slavery, when French and English fought sea duels for these islands. From its windows I could see Prune, a small sand atoll a mile offshore.

In the morning the district officer's aide. Elmore Providence, rowed me to my transport for the next week, a thirty-foot sloop, the Vlyn C. “C. for Clouden, that’s me,” said its skipper and builder. "Vlyn for wife. Small boat, small name.”

He was a compact young man with a Scotch-plaid cap on his bullet head and a stubble of curly hair on his black chin and chest. For eighteen dollars a day he promised not only a guided tour, but all the exotic seafood I could eat.

The sun burned down on a brilliant turbulent sea as we tacked to Prune. Inside its reef, where waves tumbled in every direction like practising aero-

bats, I snorkeled in a carnival world of strange promenading fish while Providence spearfished and Clouden watched for sharks. By noon we were lolling on a white-sand beach beneath a manchineel tree, washing succulent lobster down with cool Dutch beer. Sweet-smelling fruit like apples hung from the tree.

“Don’t touch them,” Providence warned. “They blister your throat. If you stand under the tree when it rains you get blisters. We burn down the trees and get lime from the wood.”

We tramped through the interior, stampeding wild goats. Heavy brush led into glades, then to slopes of flowering cacti. For dessert we picked some tamarinds, russet pods of orangebrown fruit that tasted like dry acid plums.

“Mosquitoes breed in these crab holes in the rainy season,” said Providence. “Next month in the hard time (the height of the dry season|, boats come here to dig crabs for calalou. Rice and crab with gravy. Very lovely.”

Next day, threading foaming reefs, we arrived at the four low Tobago Cays where Princess Margaret came on her yachting honeymoon. We came gliding down a silent lagoon so trans-

parently green it seemed floodlit. The heach was narrow, creamy, unmarred except by giant turtle tracks.

Inland, bunchgrass grew in the filagreed shadow of tall tree ferns, awkward and delicate as adolescence. Birds caroled in the cedars blooming pink and frilly as orchids. I shinned up a coconut tree and picked its oval green fruit. An iguana rustled through the dried-up red-brown fronds below, green and agile, a giant lizard evolved in the long distant past from a salamander.

“They climb the trees and we shake them down and catch them with dogs,” said Providence. “Very lovely meat, like chicken. People cat it on Friday. They say it half fish.”

I said farewell to the Vlyn C's crew in Carriacou, the largest Grenadine. Its harbor was backed by brown hills and edged with a ribbon of beach. Behind a hedge of seagrape ran one paved street of shops, a small hotel and a government building: Hillsboro, metropolis of the Grenadines.

The administrator, Wilfred Redhead, suave and witty, gave me a Jeep tour. Joggling along the beach, I was confronted by a strange sight: the hull of a schooner rearing above the trees. Four men were hammering in her “key,”

the last of her two - inch planking.

“They build that in a year right here on the sand,” Redhead said. “No shipyard. No plans. No power tools. Just axes and adzes, sledges and clamps, chisels and saws, and a compass for measuring.”

“How are you going to launch her?” I asked the builder.

“We kill some goats. Throw a big fête. Put five or six anchors out to sea and run a pulley back from them and chop her down till she rests on the rollers.” He pointed to the logs bracing the sides of the schooner hull and laughed reminiscently. “It’s quite a sight. Whole beach strewn with people, some pullin’, some pushin’, some cussin', some fêtin’.”

I left Carriacou sipping a highball under the canopy of the Papagallo, the Grenada-based yacht of Jim Needham, a former U.S. Air Force commander, and his wife Knight, who as Frances Knight once appeared in Hollywood movies. I had been traveling, eating and drinking for twenty-one dollars a day. I could now afford one hundred dollars a day for one day, to get to Grenada and its airfield.

Overhead planed frigate birds, those specialists in piracy. A mackerel

leaped into the sunlight in a magnificent display of exuberance. “These waters have everything,” Needham said. “Wonderful winds. Lovely anchorages. Isolated beaches. Sailfish, marlin, dolphin, barracuda. Not many know about it yet, but they will.”

As the yacht bore me back to my own century, back into the torrent of time — to the world of getting something, getting somewhere—the islands were already receding into nostalgic memory, into the timeless past to which we arc drawn in our quest for romance: a landscape that conforms to an inner need.

A lone man in a rowboat lifted his hand to us. “If he gets a fish that’s too big to haul into his boat,” Knight said, “he’ll fill the boat with water until he’s almost sinking, pull in the fish, and then bail like mad.”

I looked back at the dwindling figure, alone in that waste of water. His life was uncertain but self-sufficient, difficult but direct. If the fish came he would eat, if it rained he would drink. He lived in awareness of elemental force, unpredictable fate. He clarified what lies at the core of the quest. He related in faith, fear, awe, and sometimes wonder, to the unknown. ★