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The Grenadines

This article first appeared in 
The Yacht Magazine
The Deliverer of Messages has arrived in Carriacou. He sits in the shaded patio on a long, quiet beach, eyeing the purple contours of neighboring islands, as the primitive cargo sloop that brought him here from Grenada pulls out on its way to Petit Martinique.


For the moment, there is nothing to do; just relax, listen to the wash of tide on sand and to the occasional bray of a sad donkey tied to a palm tree, toss some ice to one of the goats set loose in this dry season, smell the hibiscus, the plumeria, wait for the Recipient to find him, enjoy the soothing escape from the world of Grenadian politics, and puzzle about the places where he's made deliveries and about those yet to come.


There will be the one delivery today–-a package for one of three white women on the island and, if the pattern holds, that will lead to another delivery and maybe another. But ultimately he will return to his own town and will have to deliver one last message. What that message will be, however, is not quite clear. It will surely deal with paradise and politics, backwardness and development, innocence and knowledge–-the sacred and the profane–-though it is now increasingly difficult to tell, in all cases, which is which.


                                        


Seen from the ramparts of Fort George, set high on a seaward cliff, the dual- bay harbor of St. George's takes the shape of inverted eyeglasses, like the pattern on a cobra's back. Steep hills enclose the bays the way a skull’s orbital ridge encloses the eyes.


Most of St. George's, Grenada's capital, is built on the slopes surrounding the northern Bay–the Careenage. Its architecture and layout are old European-–narrow, winding streets, dirty stone and brick buildings, cathedrals, kirks, and just slightly newer concrete block buildings, shops, restaurants and bars along the waterfront. Spray-painted political graffiti are on many walls. Red roofs dominate. No building is over three stories tall. It is here that ships of various shapes and sizes–-freighters to water taxis–-unload their cargoes. Set against volcanic mountains and tropical foliage, St. George's is a beautiful port, seemingly from another time.


It is hot at the water’s edge. But up on the ridge, atop the battlements of Fort George, there is a steady, cool breeze and a commanding view.


My guide–-a wiry, tee-shirted man who waits by a tunnel to snag tourists headed for the fort–-has left me for a moment to contemplate the ironies of history.


The fort, built by the French and taken by the British in the 1700s, was taken again in 1979 when Maurice Bishop's left-wing revolutionaries overthrew dictator Eric Gairy. The fort was renamed Rupert, after Bishop’s father who was killed demonstrating against Gairy five years earlier. Now it is Fort George again, and police headquarters.


But my guide did not go into all that. He kept to more recent and, therefore, more morbidly fascinating events at the fort-–events which, to this day, have not fully registered in the Grenadian mind.


He took me first to the fort’s inner courtyard. He pointed to a pocked, stone wall. “There is where they killed Maurice,” he said, referring to the executed prime minister by his first name–as do most Grenadians.


“Who killed him?” I asked, already knowing the answer.


He shrugged. “Soldiers,” he said, then quickly added, “It was the responsibility of Coard.”


“But who fired the shots? Grenadian soldiers?”


“Soldiers,” was all he would say. Then he led me to the ramparts where, on October 19, 1983, Grenadian citizens, pursued by Grenadian soldiers, had leapt to their deaths or were shot down.


It's important to remember that Grenada is a small island of under 90,000 people. Carriacou and Petit Martinique make up the rest of the country, adding perhaps 6,000 people. Everyone knows each other. People are related somehow. The people are friendly, close. They are family.


Which is why–-regardless of political leanings–-such as slaughter is impossible for Grenadians to comprehend. It is also difficult to associate these generally warm, friendly people with their own history-–a tragedy of consistent political betrayal.


The most recent episode of ambition and betrayal came in 1983 when Bishop’s deputy, a power-hungry, hard-line Communist named Bernard Coard conspired to maneuver control from Bishop to himself.


On October 13, 1983, Coard had Bishop placed under house arrest. Six days later, Bishop was freed by a mob of supporters. They went to Fort Rupert-–where Bishop expected to regain command of the army. It was inconceivable that “the People's Revolutionary Army” would oppose, let alone shoot down, the People–-their own friends and neighbors.


But they did. And Bishop himself was lined up against a wall in the fort named for his murdered father and was shot dead.


These events were, by far, more incredible than the U.S. invasion six days later. The Bishop regime had expected that for years.


It is the rapid sequence of betrayals in the name of “the People” that is still unreconciled in the Grenadian mind. Not surprisingly, most Grenadians are now highly skeptical of all politicians-–left, right, moderate. And conspiracy theories–-implicating both the CIA and the KGB, as one prefers-–are embraced quickly.


All of which can make things darkly exciting for the American tourist in a number of ways.


                                       


“When will the American soldiers leave?” I ask my guide as we head back toward the tunnel.


“They say June sixth.”


“Do you think they’ll really go?”


He shakes his head and says no. Then he eyes the bearded American who's been asking so many questions. He appraises my aviator shades, khaki shirt, and green shorts. “No,” he says again, and looking pointedly at me, says, “they'll just change their uniforms.”


                                       


There is only one doctor on Carriacou and no real pharmacy. It is backward here; slow, blameless. The delivery was medicine. The recipient was Beth Mills, a geographer doing land-use studies.


Mills had not met the boat on time and so had missed the delivery from the stranger. Still, Hillsboro is a one lane, tiny village and so finding a stranger is easy.


She went directly to the Mermaid Inn; walking past the dusty, clapboard rum shops with their corrugated tin roofs, past the Inn’s empty lobby, past the empty reception desk, past the simple, primitive painting on the wall-–“SS Meria, Toris (sic) Boat by Mr. Canute Calliste”–-and into the kitchen where the cook pointed out the stranger on the patio.


“You're in from St. George's,” she said. Her short blond hair and dark brows, set off piercing green eyes.


“You must be Beth. Here, this is for you.”


“How did you like Grenada?”


“The island was beautiful–-though not as much as here. The people were mostly friendly, disillusioned, political. And the drivers were maniacs.”


“I know! I hate politics, but whenever I go there, we end up talking about it constantly. But on Carriacou... Well, this is it.” She waved her arm at the long, empty beach. “This is the whole down. I'm from New Mexico–-10,000 foot high hot springs and all that; fine–but I don't want to go back... Why did you come here?”


“Serendipity,” he said. He followed wherever the deliveries led him–-from the neighbor in California with friends in Grenada and an envelope of photos for them, to the gift shop owner in St. George's with a message for the Anglican priest, to the pharmacist with a package for the geographer on Carriacou.


“Yes, it's kind of an informal Pony Express the travelers provide us,” she said. “In return, you get to meet people.”


She talked about the voyage from Grenada and about the perpetual race between the two hand-hewn, gaff-rigged, cargo sloops-–each laden with goats, spices, people, chickens, mail, concrete, cars, and sometimes coffins. (The smaller Adelaide always loses, and each time, it's dour and persistent captain appears surprised and disappointed and immediately begins brooding on a new strategy.)


“There's someone here you might be interested in,” she said. “A native boatbuilder. Carriacou is where those boats are built, you know. He’s going to take us into the bush tomorrow to show us the different woods they use. Perhaps you'd like to come.”


                                       


Steal Away, a steel hull, 50-foot, Trewes Vander Meer sloop, rotates slightly against its anchor in St. George's other harbor. Three of us are drinking rum in the cockpit. It is almost sunset and each turn of the boat brings a different aspect of the harbor into view.


It is the quieter of St. George's two bays. It is home to the Grenada Yacht Service and, now, to about 40 vessels.


From my angle, facing west into the peaches and lavenders of dusk, I can see the silhouettes of three men on the ridge who are also watching the sunset. They have perched themselves upon the bombed out, concrete remains of Butler House–-formerly the PRG headquarters and, before that, the Islander Hotel.


Below them, at the water’s edge, at the entrance to the harbor, is a statue of Jesus with arms upraised. The statue was given in gratitude to the people of St. George's by an Italian cruise ship line. (In the early 1970s, one of its ships caught fire and burned to a hulk while docked at the Careenage. Grenadians came out in their own boats and rescued all of the ship’s 800 passengers, then took them into their homes.)


Looking at the wreckage of Butler House and at the statue, I can't help but think what a weird picture it must've been during the invasion–-warplanes streaking in, firing rockets at the Ridge with the bronze Jesus seeming to signal on-target hits, or, more likely, a prayer to stop.


I’d met my hosts of the moment amid the debris of Butler House. Bob Pollon, an ex-math teacher from Canada, and Claudia Starita from Florida. Bob, sandy haired, wore a green regatta tee-shirt. Petite Claudia wore a coral necklace over a red tank top. Both I judged to be somewhere in their 30s. Independently, we’d gone up the ridge to view the devastation. Back on their boat, we reluctantly admitted that war could, indeed, be one hell of a tourist attraction.


“We weren’t worried at all about coming down here,” Bob says. “With the war over and US troops here, we figured this is about the safest place in the area.”


“We wanted to see what's going on,” says Claudia. “My mother flew down from Florida to meet us. Wherever we went, people were really friendly–-especially the older ones. They would grab my mother and, with tears in their eyes–-really–-thank her, thank America, for saving them. They believed they were going to be slaughtered in a civil war.”


“Your mother wasn't uneasy about coming here?”


Claudia grins. “No. She lives at Cape Canaveral. She sees rockets blow up on the pad all the time.”


Our conversation ranges widely. I tell them about the GIs I've talked with who say the locals they've met have given them a mixed reception (“Some treat you like kings; others throw rocks at you,” said one), and about the student I met from St. George's University Medical School--the school whose students the invasion force was officially sent to rescue.


I asked him if he’d seen the Doonesbury comic strip parodies of his school. “You know, Club Med School,” I explained. The guy's parents sent him some of the strips. He said they were exactly right. He could even recognize some of the students. I asked him if this was one of his top choices. “No,” he replied. “This school was the last resort–-so to speak.”


Bob opens more rum. “I haven't seen the Doonesbury strip,” he says. “We’ve been cruising for nearly two years. We left Florida in ‘83 just about the time of the invasion. We took our time getting here. So what else is going on in the world?”


I watch him mix the rum and coke and decide not to hit him with anything to startling. “Coca-Cola changed its formula,” I say.


“What?!” Bob gapes.


Soon it is nearly dark. A steel band begins to practice in the concrete block hut onshore and sounds like an orchestra of electric organs. Stars appear–-an upside-down Big Dipper and the Southern Cross.


“You can see a lot of stars down here,” says Bob. “Even in port there is little competing light.”


“This place makes me imagine Hawaii a hundred years ago,” I say. “Still, these people are hungry. And they're hungry for development: hotels, construction, industry, money, jobs.”


“It's a fine line,” Bob says. “How much do you develop? Too little and the people suffer. Too much and you lose the stars.”


                                       


The shipwright, a powerful, handsome man with bad teeth, lived in the village of Windward on Carriacou. Rather than trust some “butcher dentist” a day’s walk away, he extracted his own teeth by soaking his mouth with Jack Iron 198-proof rum, nailing a wire to a tree, tying one end to the bad molar and falling over backwards.


His arms, even when relaxed, stood out like bars of metal. His chocolate colored skin, his hair, tight curls, implied one lineage; his green eyes–-eyes full of mischief and good spirits–-and thin lips suggested another. He carried a machete casually, sometimes using it as a walking stick as he led his visitors deep into the arid mountain brush.


“You know, I carry this cutlass with me because they say that no poison snakes are here but I do not know that,” he began. “Because one time I was walking here and a snake was in the lane. I chopped him behind the head with my cutlass and the head flew off and it stuck in a tree. I came back later and the tree was dead.”


Throughout the four-hour trek, the craftsmans, Koi Koi Bethel, identified various trees for his visitors and, during rests, threw in anecdotes and local folklore from a seemingly endless supply. Politics never came up.


“That one there, that is a cutlet tree. Good for a keel. Straight. For the ribs we use cedar. But we cannot bend them with steam as I hear they do where you're from. So we have to find trees that are already bent.”


“What about the silkcotton?” his guest inquired.


Koi Koi smiled slyly. “Oh, you know about silkcotton, eh? They say that’s Moko’s–-the Devil’s–-tree; that jumbies--spirits--stay there. I don't know about it, myself,” he added.


They sat down in a cool glen near the mountain top. Looking out, they could see the purple reefs below and the outlines of Petit Martinique, Petit St. Vincent, Palm Island, and Union Island.


Like children, Koi Koi’s audience pressed closer to hear more about magic and voodoo. Squatting down near a juniper tree, he set to the task.


“They say that there was a doctor and one night he had to ride to deliver some medicine and he was riding a white horse. He came to a crossroads and there were three people there. They all cried to him, ‘Take me, master! Take me first, take me first!’ He rode on and told the police, who tried to find them but couldn't. So they cut down all the silkcotton trees on that side of Carriacou... You see, those three were soucouyants--witches--and they mistook the doctor for the Devil.”


“Do you think it's true?” asked one of the party.


“I don't know. I only saw a witch once.”


“You saw one?”


“Yes, and this is not a lie. One night, while we were asleep, there was a noise on our roof. My wife came to me and said, ‘Koi Koi go see what is on our roof.‘  I took my cutlass and went outside and looked at the roof. There was a large glow of light. I said, ‘Who's there?’ And suddenly, the witch fled. With my own two eyes I saw the stream of light, like a comet leave my roof... You know, they say that jumbies don't like noise–-cars and electric lights. So as towns grow, they move to the country and that's why they're all around here now, in Windward.”


                                       


And now, back in my country, sorting through all I've been entrusted to deliver, I am lost–-what was that last message?


Was it something about the profanity of politics or the sacredness of an island? Did it have to do with the need for development in Grenada? Or about to jumbies who, like stars, flee the coming lights of civilization? Did it concern the weirdly innocent belief of voodoo?


Or was it the pagan shipwright’s cryptic farewell to his pagan guest: “Mountains apart never come together,” he said. “Still, as a Christian we may meet again.” ?


Or was it just one simple image?


Back at Fort George, in a wall, in cracks made by bullets, ferns have taken root.