The Anglican church in the village of Biabou stood on the edge of the bluff, morosely looking out to sea. The Atlantic lay still and silvery, like polished slate in the evening light. The rain clouds drew a curtain over the sky, and the stretch of black sand below gave the entire picture the aura of some tragic romance.
Until that rainy afternoon in January, Biabou had only been a name for me, of one of the villages in my mother’s island of St Vincent. I always called it that — my mother’s island, as if she alone lived there.
In 1943 or thereabouts, my mother packed her life into a plaited straw suitcase and sailed from St Vincent to Trinidad where, many years later, she had me. Once, long before I was born, she returned to her village by the river, and that was the last time she saw her island.
Mother used to fill me with funny-sad stories of her girl days as a child; I would sit in the kitchen on an upended mortar and beg for more. I used to hold my belly and laugh over the “Prideful Headmaster”, who built a house so tall with embezzled money that every morning on his way to work he would call out to the masons and carpenters, “Up to heaven, boys. Up to heaven”, until his misdeeds were found out and he was shunned by his entire village.
Then there was Sebro, the Grammarian, who was an early version of My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins. So instead of flattening his vowels and calling a dog a “daag”, as his neighbours did, Sebro had to say “dew-oog” as if he was swallowing honey. That is, until someone took after him with a cutlass, and he dropped the schoolhouse talk.
I learned about the small fish called tri tri that go upstream in August, and all anyone had to do was spread some bed sheets and flour sacks at the mouth of the river and collect the fish.
My mother described a land so lush and fertile that avocados, mangoes and mammy apples were too plentiful to gather up and just lay there on the earth, going squish-squish underfoot. She would wrinkle up her nose at the pumpkin and sweet potatoes in the markets of Trinidad and say how scrawny they were, compared to the bounty of her island.
And when she would name the villages of her island — Chateaubelair, Layou, Barrouallie, Biabou — they sounded like something to eat, like big sugary plums to be held in the corner of my cheek and sucked on forever.
I always imagined my mother and I would visit her island together, but she always had an excuse. This time was no different. She refused to go. “Too many memories,” is all she would say. “Too many memories.”
In the City of Arches
“You could walk straight off the jetty, right into the police station,” my mother had told me. She wasn’t exaggerating. The deep-water harbour provided a gentle backdrop to the stern colonial arches of Police Headquarters on Bay Street, in the capital of Kingstown.
Kingstown is made up of 12 narrow streets, with modern shops and pharmacies peeping out from under arches of ancient reddish brick. Uptown, I had breakfast in a 19th-century townhouse, beneath more arches.
Three ancient churches — Catholic, Anglican and Methodist — preside over the capital. As one comes upon them on Back Street, it is as if one has been transported back in time. One half-expects to see some forlornly beautiful heroine looking down from a balcony or bell tower.
Built in the 1800s, the St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, with its arches and spires, is an enigmatic combination of Roman, Gothic and Moorish architectural styles. Its unusual presence has led Kingstown to be called the City of Arches.
It was Friday, which was supposed to be a busy day in Kingstown, but no one seemed rushed. Foreign-used Japanese cars and minivans, popular for transporting tourists, cruised by.
The vegetable and ground provision market, once an open-air collection of stalls, had been moved to the ground floor of a new three-storey peach-coloured building. Women were selling bananas, sweet potatoes, eddoes and fat, yellow pumpkins.
On the top storey was Slick’s restaurant, where I had my first local cooking: fried chicken in a peppery tomato and onion sauce, with ground provision spilling over the plate, as if my mother herself had shared the pot with her heavy hand.
One of the best views of Kingstown and the Grenadines to the south is from Fort Charlotte on Berkshire Hill, about 600 feet above the bay. The road climbs and climbs till the sailboats look like tiny white triangles on the ocean, and the houses on the northern hillsides like matchbox toys.
The road goes through the village of Edinburgh, where an exiled African king once lived. A plaque in the wall of a private residence tells that King Jugbo-Jugbo Fem of Opobo (now Ghana) was expelled by the British who were greedy for the palm oil trade in the 19th century. He died without fulfilling his dream of returning to his homeland.
The gateway to the fort is a tunnel so narrow, one could almost kiss the walls without leaning out the window of the minivan. The fort was named after the wife of Mad King George III of England. It was constructed in 1806, and once supported 600 troops and 34 guns. The cannons now face the sea but were originally turned inland, which was the stage for the wars between the English invaders and the Black Caribs.
The sweeping drama of how St Vincent’s Black Caribs came to be conquered is told through the large paintings that hang on the whitewashed walls of what used to be the officers’ quarters.
What must have gone through the minds of those English soldiers as they peered down from their cannons? I saw a dramatic beauty in the indigo ocean and mad tumble of mountains. They must have seen only blood and sand, as they wondered why they had been flung into such hostile territory.
The dense, mountainous territory allowed the Caribs to resist the European invaders longer than most other Caribbean islands. The Caribs were joined by Africans who had escaped slavery in Barbados, or who had survived shipwrecks near St Vincent and Bequia. Their descendants became known as Black Caribs.
The French and the British squabbled over St Vincent for most of the 18th century. The Black Caribs mistrusted them both. In 1783, when the British again took control of the island, the Black Caribs burned plantations and slew the planters in the Second Carib War or Brigands War.
Tribal chief Duvalier (or Du Valle) took the eastern coast, while Chatoyer (also Chattawar) pushed the British forces down the western coast toward Kingstown. The two met in the hills above the capital and set their sights on capturing Kingstown. But on the night of 14 March 1795, when British forces, who had recently arrived from warships, marched on Dorsetshire Hill, Chatoyer was killed by Major Alexander Leith. Not in pitched battle but in a duel, according to the painting on the wall of Fort Charlotte. Leith died of his wounds some days later.
The death of Chatoyer weakened the Black Carib forces, although they continued fighting back for another year. After they surrendered at Vigie, over 5,000 Black Caribs were exiled to Balliceaux and Bequia. Some were loaded into ships and transported to Honduras. It is also believed many were slaughtered on the beaches. The few who escaped scattered to the north of the island where their descendants can still be found.
Fort Charlotte is now a museum under renovation. Inmates from the women’s prisons use the grounds for exercise, but otherwise, only ghosts roam the fort now.
On the windward trail
The Mesopotamia Valley was as intensely green as I had pictured it, with the clouds casting a thin white veil over the mountaintops. In the valley below were thick coconut and banana fields. Bananas are the chief export of St Vincent and the Grenadines, but falling prices and competition from countries that produce bananas at a cheaper rate have made the industry difficult and frustrating.
“Bananas are our life,” Agriculture Minister Selmon Walters has been reminding farmers, urging them to grow more bananas of better quality at a cheaper price to become more competitive and successful.
Over the last 20 years, three hurricanes have destroyed as much as 70% of the banana plantations. Despite its hardships, St Vincent is a land of abundance. It’s there in the power of the mountains, the crash of the waves and the unconquered forests running through the middle of the island.
The Mesopotamia Valley was part of my journey along the windward coast to find my mother’s village of South Rivers. The road plunged dramatically and then climbed again, twisting and turning, rising and falling.
In Union Village, a man was selling what looked like half a slaughtered cow at the side of the road. At Park Hill, the home town of Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the minivan driver and guide stopped at a shop for bottles of the locally-brewed Hairoun beer and bitter lemon. The label also includes a fruit cocktail, which tastes like passion fruit and orange with a dash of lemon. Hairoun is the old Amerindian name for the island, meaning Land of the Blessed, and the red Hairoun sign pops up around every corner and over every other doorway. The tangy, refreshing bitter lemon drink quickly became a favourite of mine.
An old waterwheel that used to be part of an arrowroot factory remains in Park Hill, a remnant of an era when arrowroot was a major export and revenue-earner for the government. Arrowroot produces a starch, traditionally used as a thickening in soups and sauces, and it is also the substance that puts the gloss on computer paper.
The weather-beaten, rotting shed of the once busy Arrowroot Association still stands near my mother’s home in South Rivers. That was where my grandparents would transport their harvested crop to be milled, which would then be taken to the town to be graded. The better the grade, the higher the price. Disgruntled growers used to complain that the buyers were not grading the arrowroot but one’s face.
My mother was once part of a homemade “sting” operation to test the face-over-crop theory. Her parents took their arrowroot to be graded one week and got only second grade. So the following week they sent their daughter with arrowroot from the same harvest, and, aha! she got first grade.
A box of arrowroot flour was the only gift my mother asked me to bring back. To make a nice porridge, she explained. She hadn’t had a taste of home in half a century.
In the village of South Rivers, I called the name of my mother’s family and was directed to a small shop next to a cemetery with lots of Jacob’s coat, a multicoloured plant, growing among the headstones. A man with threads of grey at the temples and a long, thin face appeared from the back of his shop. It was my Uncle Peter, whom I had met only once before. He did not recognise me.
He was the only relative I was able to locate in the village, although three of my uncles still lived nearby. The others had been scattered to Canada, England, Tortola. We spoke of bananas and cattle, and how every day he climbed into the hills to tend his crops and his herd. Peter was not a storyteller like my mother and I was hungry for more memories, so we soon ran out of things to say to each other. I took his photograph and he smiled. His eyes crinkled up at the corners. He had my mother’s smile.
I took a last backward look at the river. Women were washing their clothes among the smooth, black boulders, just as my grandmother had done a century ago. My mother used to laugh at the tiny brown birds hopping across the giant boulders, imagining that the birds were saying, “River stone, river stone, you could bear my weight?”
It was also there at the water’s edge that my grandmother had sat weeping 50 years ago, when my mother came home for a brief visit and then left for good.
On the leeward trail
Down, down, down we went, left to right to left. The road to Troumaka, on the leeward coast, zig-zagged like the EKG reading of a nervous patient. Pretty houses (aquamarine and hot tango pink seem to be a popular colour combination) appeared like punctuation marks among the heavily forested hillsides.
The road seemed to be leading down to nowhere, until, around the last corner, up popped a Hairoun sign, and a bar on a beach to go along with it. It was owned by Marsy, a tall, craggy-faced man who had returned to Troumaka after 17 years in Canada. He’d bought four-and-a-half acres, set up Marsy’s Beach Bar, and let a herd of goats and a donkey run free in the hills behind him. “When it comes to the earth, you can’t go wrong,” he said.
When visitors come by, he makes a “cook” of goat or kingfish right there on the beach.
But I was out of luck that day. He had “turned down the pot” because he was heading for a tourism meeting in Chateaubelair. The waves turned from periwinkle to indigo. His friends played cards and discussed affairs of state. Marsy popped open another round of Hairoun, letting the corks fly. The party was not over, just relocating.
Having missed out on Marsy’s goat stew, I was taken to a late lunch at the Beach Front restaurant in Fitz Hughes. It was Sunday, and the restaurant appeared to be closed, but we were welcomed in anyway, and in less than half an hour plates of fried kingfish and fat chips were placed in front of us. It was like dropping in on a favourite aunt.
The stillness was soon interrupted by the laughter and chattering of a Brownie pack, in bright yellow T-shirts, who descended on the beach in a last outing before the new school term began the following morning. By 4 p.m. it was time to leave, but not before I soaked up the setting sun, which became a thin, silvery strip of light on the edge of the ocean.
Later, following the leeward trail to its conclusion, I stopped at Richmond, where the twin peaks of the neighbouring island of St Lucia made a cameo appearance on the horizon, and Madame La Soufrière, the volcano, rose like a warrior empress in the rainy mist. Standing 4,000 feet high, she last erupted on Good Friday, 13 April 1979, asserting her power, but taking no lives.
In Chateaubelair, people were celebrating the opening of the North Leeward Tourism Association. Minister of Tourism René Baptiste came to give her blessings. Chateaubelair, she said, was going to become a port of entry and one of the most important heritage sites, with its closeness to La Soufrière. Later, when asked what she liked best about her country, Baptiste said, “As a Vincentian, I am a unique person. I am African, European, Carib. My history tells me I have a history so rich I keep discovering more and more about myself.”
She described the indomitable spirit of the Black Caribs and explained why she had a French name. When the French priests baptised the children of the Black Caribs, they gave them their own names. So there are lots of Duvaliers and Baptistes among families of Black Carib ancestry.
After the speeches the evening turned festive, and the energy of the crowd rose like a bonfire. A group of boom boom drummers stirred up the night with their instruments made of goat skin and wood of the gru gru palm tree.
Telecommunications Minister Dr Jerrol Thompson, in jacket and tie, was shaking his waist and dancing with his constituents. Squealing children surrounded him. That’s St Vincent for you. It just feels like home.
I could have stayed all night with the drumming and the sea breeze on my neck. But it was time to go. The next morning I was back in my own island, sitting at my mother’s cluttered kitchen table, sharing new memories over our first bowl of arrowroot porridge together.
I had pictured something thick and lumpy but instead, there was a pale, milky bubble in front of me. My mother stirred in some sugar and wished that she had some grated nutmeg for flavouring.
As the first spoonful of porridge passed her lips, my mother smiled. But her eyes were sad with longing.
Twelve things to do
• Visit the Botanical Gardens. The oldest in the Americas (1765), the gardens are worth an entire morning’s exploration. The famous breadfruit tree, grown from an original sucker brought to St Vincent by Captain Bligh on his second voyage, is still standing. My guide Andy Cyrus gives the Latin and local names of the plants and trees. He also explains their medicinal uses. The cassia tree, for example, is called the sausage tree because of the long hanging fruit that is used as a laxative. The brain tree is so called because of the appearance of the wrinkled green fruit. It is also called the walking tree because of the spreading clumps of roots. The leaves of the sandpaper tree can actually be used to file and buff nails. Cyrus will crush leaves and grasses under your nose and make you guess what they are. The smell of lemon means lemon grass, which is brewed as a tea. The smell of garlic comes from the “male garlic” plant, used in salads. The rare St Vincent parrot, with feathers of green, blue, grey, red and yellow, is also found in the gardens.
• Bathe in a waterfall. A sprained ankle prevented me from eco-adventures, but I plan to visit again, just for the waterfalls and nature trails. The Falls of Baleine are best reached by boat or water taxi. The 60-foot falls form a huge pool, where visitors can swim and bathe. Forty-foot Trinity Falls descends three cascades into a pool, then drops another 10 into a second pool.
• Climb the Soufrière. The mountain is over 4,000 feet high and the footpath leads through heavy forest which the sunlight barely penetrates. The volcano last erupted in 1979. This year is the 100th anniversary of the 1902 eruption which the Government intends to commemorate.
• Discover the Grenadines. The islands can be reached by sea and air. Bequia is famous for whaling and its turtle conservation programme. You can also spot dolphins between May and December. Mustique has attracted millionaires and royalty. Princess Margaret accepted a 10-acre plot there as a wedding present. Go snorkelling and sailing at Union Island, Mayreau and the Tobago Cays. The Mustique Blues Festival is held in Mustique, Bequia and St Vincent. And the Bequia Easter Regatta is a sailing and boating tradition.
• Join the carnival. “Vincy Mas” is launched with an outdoor party. The festivities, fired up by steelband and calypso, begin this year on 28 June and end on 9 July, after a two-day costumed street parade.
• See Test Cricket at Arnos Vale. New Zealand will play the West Indies on 16 June for the fifth One Day International at the Arnos Vale playing field, right on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, with the Grenadine Islands stretching out in all their glory.
• Bathe in a salt pond. The waves of the Atlantic wash into a bathing pool surrounded by a natural formation of lava rocks at Owia, on the windward coast. The traveller can just sit there in the natural jacuzzi and get happy.
• Take a bicycle tour. Sailor’s Wilderness Tours offers cycling explorations of the island. This collection of cycles is also worth seeing; they include a penny farthing, a rickshaw and a cycle for two.
• Read the petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are drawings on stone. Some of the Amerindian drawings have been deciphered. Those at Indian Bay, Layou and Barrouallie are said to be associated with sun worship. There are also petroglyphs at Colonaire, Buccament and Petit Bordel.
• Visit the Alliance Française. Ask to see the handwritten documents of French officers discussing deals with the Black Caribs and Chatoyer’s recalcitrance.
• Go to church. The country churches deserve a special tour of their own. They tell their own history of the European battles for control of St Vincent. Roman Catholicism was once banned by the British after they drove out the French. And a Methodist minister was once jailed for preaching to slaves. Perched high on the hills, many churches, such as St Matthew’s in Biabou, offer heavenly views of the ocean and the Grenadines.
• Get married. The islands with their panoramic views and ancient churches make them ideal for love and romance. Wedding parties often pose for photographs in Hibiscus Alley in the Botanic Gardens. Visitors get married on cliffy hillsides, on black sand beaches and in lush gardens with live string band music and clusters of pink and white bougainvillea.
• St Vincent is the largest of more than 30 islands that make up the nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). It is home to champion marathoner Pamenos Ballantyne, calypsonian Becket and cricketer Cameron Cuffy
• St Vincent covers 334 square kilometres (133 square miles), while the Grenadines account for another 44 square kilometres or 17 square miles. The islands lie between St Lucia (to the north) and Grenada
• The Grenadines stretch out, like stepping stones, to the south-west. Major islands are Young Island, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Union Island, Palm Island and Petit St Vincent
• Black sand beaches are common to St Vincent and are rumoured to have therapeutic qualities. The black sand is believed to be made of tiny fragments of glass forged by the volcano, La Soufrière, which is located in the north of the island. When a volcano erupts, the hot, dark, glassy lava flows downhill. When it flows into the cold waters of the ocean, the lava shatters into fine grains that settle to the sea floor. Ocean currents and waves eventually carry the resulting black sand back to shore, thereby forming a black sand beach
• The French and British fought over St Vincent during the 18th century. In 1871, St Vincent became part of the British colony of the Windward Islands. In 1969, it became a British “associated state”; ten years later, on 27 October 1979, St Vincent and the Grenadines became a fully independent state within the British Commonwealth. The population of SVG is about 116,000. Agriculture, primarily banana cultivation, is the most important sector of the economy. Tourism, with emphasis on natural heritage and eco-tourism, is an important foreign exchange earner. SVG is also known as an off-shore financial centre
• The currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar and the exchange rate is tied to the US dollar at a rate of $2.70
• Getting around is easy. Buses and minivan taxis cover the mountainous terrain. Government sets the fares. Guided tours are also available. Despite the sharp inclines and declines of the single-lane roads, I travelled comfortably in an air-conditioned, carpeted, foreign-used minivan, operated by Maxi Taxi. Water taxis also take visitors to the Falls of Baleine and provide a pick-up and drop-off service to yachts
• Accommodation ranges from secluded cottages and beach houses to apartment hotels and resorts. Go to www.svghotels.com. You can be as isolated or as sociable as you wish. I stayed at Rosewood Apartment Hotel in Villa, minutes from the E. T. Joshua airport, within walking distance of trendy restaurants and the beach. I woke up each morning to a splendid view of Young Island.