Last Word (March/April 2004)

On the voyage of the Gli Gli, Simon Lee becomes an honorary Carib

A Trini by adoption, in the course of my Caribbean travels I’ve acquired honorary citizenship in several other islands. There’s always a welcome-home rum awaiting me when I’m reunited with my extended family, whether in Havana or Cayenne. But the connection I’m proudest of is with the Kalinago, the island Caribs of Dominica, sole and soul survivors of the region’s indigenous peoples, who Chris and the conquistadors encountered half a millennium ago on their first tour out west.

Thanks to Dominica’s impenetrable mountainous terrain, the Caribs survived in their rain-forested bastion long after their tribespeople were decimated in the other islands. In Grenada they leaped off a cliff rather than surrender to the French, while the Black Caribs of St Vincent (descendants of shipwrecked slaves and Vincy Amerindians) were deported en masse by the Brits, and unceremoniously dumped on the Bay Islands off Honduras.

I first found myself in Dominica’s Carib territory after fleeing the inhumanly high register of an American jazz diva in neighbouring Martinique. While dogs howled piteously in Fort-de-France, and Le Monde’s jazz critic smirked into his café au lait, your boy sprinted for the docks and the first express ferry out of earshot.

By the next day I’d swapped chic Martinique for Salybia, the hamlet capital of the Caribs – in reality, no more than a string of clapboard houses hugging the narrow road snaking through hurricane-battered palms, above the Atlantic-chiselled rocks below. I introduced myself to the Kalinago chief, who gave an informal interview in his shorts and faded t-shirt; watched weavers at work on waterproof baskets and ingenious finger traps; spent the night on the verandah of the chief’s father; and left the following morning, swearing to return.

Call it luck, fate, or a fine example of the excellent Caribbean adage, "What goes around comes around" – but the next year I was masquerading as a windsurfing novice in Tortola, BVI, when I picked up the Carib trail again. On a Beef Island beach I met Aragorn – not a refugee from Lord of the Rings, but a Tortolan artist-cum-anthropologist who had a tale of adventure tall enough to make Messrs Tolkein and Potter throw in the Hollywood rag.

The Kalinago were building a 35-foot dugout canoe in preparation for a voyage down the islands, from Dominica back to their ancestral homelands at Santa Monica and Kabakaburi on the Pomeroon River in Guyana. It was no coincidence that I returned to Dominica just in time for the sea trials of the Gli Gli canoe, hewn by 20 men from the trunk of a single gommier tree felled high in the rainforest and dragged down to Salybia. Jacob Frederick, the Carib artist who’d first conceived of the epic voyage, had decorated Gli Gli’s blue hull with a traditional yellow-and-roucou Amerindian design. I couldn’t resist jumping into the canoe when volunteers were needed for a "man overboard" simulation.

Having been overboard for most of my natural life, I happily flung myself backwards off the fleet "small hawk", as she sliced through the warm waters under her wind-stretched square sail. By the time we returned to the small fishing village of Marigot, I didn’t need to be press-ganged into the crew.

We were reunited in St Vincent, where Chalo – the master canoe builder who’d supervised the Gli Gli’s construction – welcomed me like a long-lost son. (I think the bottle of rum I’d brought him helped.) He soon installed me in his own hammock in the sweating hold of the Dominican schooner Carmella, which was accompanying the Gli Gli on its voyage.

Besides the Carib crew – which included one woman – Aragorn and Jacob had assembled a multinational support and technical team: a Brazilian photographer and his svelte Russian model girlfriend; a Brit medical adviser turned bush doctor, and his friend, a traveling tai chi instructor; an Italian media coordinator; an American navigator who left women weeping and waving in every port we left; and a Peruvian Indian. I was in my element.

The Gli Gli made short work of the narrow channel between St Vincent and Bequia, under the skilful hands of Chalo and the other old Carib heads: the superbly named Hamlet Prince (a man with a permanent squint, who tilted his head back at an acute angle when focusing on your face during conversation), and the deceptively quiet Mullin Stoute, who came to life singing Guadaloupean sea shanties at a beach party in the Tobago Keys.

When the Gli Gli hit the beach in Bequia, there was a lavish welcoming party led by a small group of descendants of the Vincy Black Caribs. Beer and emotions flowed; a kids’ choir sang; the Dominican and Vincy Caribs embraced and danced. Hamlet Prince twirled past me, a stout Vincy matron in his arms. "Who’s he?" enquired Miss Lady, pointing in my direction. Mr Prince adjusted his neck and his squint and, scrutinising me, broke into a raucous grin. "He’s our brother, the white Carib."

And if there was any doubt that he meant it, by the end of the voyage the noble Hamlet had offered me a house on his land, rent free, for as long as I liked.