I love the feeling I get when I take a first step into a new place we haven’t been to before, especially if I instantly get the sense that things have been this way for a long time. In the Caribbean you have to walk down this way, then down that way and around a corner to find an area that hasn’t changed yet. For the past four months we have been hopping around the Caribbean Sea, visiting places that often left me reflecting on the positive and negative impacts we have as travelers on this planet. In most places there is a Margaritaville and a Diamonds International and around every other corner there are jewelry stores and Harley Davidson T-shirt shops polluting the streets. It seems as if the once utopian Caribbean has become subjected to materialism. In all honesty, it has been hard to find that idyllic space out here. But then again, my idyllic might be different to yours.
So it was always with great satisfaction when I stumbled upon a place that becomes a keeper in the mind.
From under a palm tree in the shade, on sand whiter than the Caribbean man selling coconuts bright smile is, I contemplate the surroundings. Other than the occasional hermit crab that crawls past, there is not much else happening. It’s too hot to do anything anyway. The slight ocean breeze brings with it a mellow melody of reggae music that is playing far down the beach to the left. Further to the right a local woman is preparing jerk chicken. The rum has got me thinking out loud: “ I want to casually interview a couple of guys on different islands about their way of life and how they benefit, and, or suffer from the influx of thousands of foreigners each day to their shores.” We are on a cruise ship after all, and often when we are in port there will be at least another two cruise ships already, which leads to a very congested vibe. At times there may be more than twenty thousand tourists off cruise ships in towns that can barely accommodate half that.
It must be the years, I guess, that the man has spent at hacking open coconuts that have left his hands looking worn out and creased, like the kind of hands you typically see on men who use them to earn a living. As I watch him perfectly slash open another one, I can’t help but wonder how many times he has done this. With an aged straw hat on his pepper colored head, incredible confidence and clearly a lifetime of experience, the shirtless local cuts out a spoon from part of the coconut shell with his machete while a cigarette dangles from his mouth. “To eat da juiiiiciest part of dem white coconut pieaaces afta you been sippin on da juices of dat coconut” he says to the customer in an accent that fits the setting better than the glass full of sweet mango rum fits in my hand. He puts the money handed to him in a makeshift cardboard box till, turns and dashes toward the dreamy turquoise water where he wallows until the next customer comes along. “ Idyllic”, I thought to myself. I have to speak to this man.
St Thomas USVI
After spending an hour or so talking with Nevis, I get lost in how cool he speaks. The way he talks sounds like it is coming from a reggae song. Its not just the words, its also his peculiar expressions and hand gestures that keeps me locked in conversation. He is an old man and has seen both the good and the bad of tourism in this place. His analysis is short and sweet. “ Everybody needs a bit of money. Some people just want a bit more so they go and make bigger buildings where tourists can have air-conditioned shops to buy their overpriced souvenirs from.” He points to a boy riding his horse up and down the beach and says: “Here in Grand Turk though, things are still unsullied”. That makes me happy.
Grand Turk & Caicos
Usually we would cycle down to the beach, but this one time only – back in Florida – we get into a cab to go to the beach. When I notice the Jamaican flag stuck on the dashboard I get the same feeling one would get when you bump into a long lost friend – a mixture of reminiscence and happiness. I loved Jamaica and would like very much to go back, but the ship does not stop there again while we are on board. The Rasta taxi driver and I chat all the way and he asks me if I like music. I tell him music gets me high and so he hands me his iPod. “Press da play botton mon you listen to some melodies I been listenin to whole day.” I close my eyes and within seconds I am taken through the headphone wires to a beach in Jamaica where I jam to the most irie of irie tunes. I ask him: “Who dat playin on the music box mon?” He smiles and says “ Morgan Heritage mon.” I still thought about downloading it when I get a chance but little do I know that I will get to meet a cousin of one of the band members, in a place most unexpected.
See, everything is connected in some way. Nothing works in isolation. The chain of events that eventually led to me meeting the second person I spontaneously interview, started out as something small just off the Leeward Islands in the West Indies. A low-pressure system developed into Gonzalo which eventually grew into a category four hurricane, causing major floods and wind damage in the Virgin Isles and the Bahamas. For obvious reasons the ship has to change course and the safest place to go is into the Heart of the Caribbean. We get to go back to Jamaica one more time.
I meet ultra chilled Mr. Clifford on a sunny Jamaican day in a busy market place. Unlike most of the vendors, he keeps to himself and does not ‘push’ to get you to go into his tiny tin roofed trading post. There is u huge collection of CD’s stacked behind him and you can pay three bucks to have a CD copied. He uses a music copying setup that is older than his long grey dreadlocks are and his eyes smile wider than the Rasta vendor across from us selling higher grade Jamaican Kush. “ You want some music mon?” I say aye and ask him if he’s got any Morgan Herritage. “ Me have many albums of Morgan mon, me one cousin is a member of da group.” He shuffles around and puts forward seven albums for me to choose from. I ask him to choose his favorite album and to burn me a disk. “ No problem mon, it will take I five Jamaican minutes to do so. Take a seat mon.” I sit on a small wooden stool and admire his music shack. He has music from all genres stacked to the ceiling and he clearly takes pride in what he does. I ask him if he ever got to meet Bob Marley in person. “ Me not ever meet Nesta, me only see the Natty Dread in concert once long time ago.” Respect mon, I tell him and we get into a conversation that casually takes us from talking about Africa, Burning Spear, Nelson Mandela and Bunny Wailer to home grown herb and vegetarianism. Clifford is one of the most interesting Jamaicans I converse with and so when I ask him what he thinks of the many tourists that flood the streets he tells me the following. “ Da hand that feeds da mouth is often not washed afta touching da money used to buy da food, but does that really matta? Jamaica thrives on tourism, so we welcome people from all over da world, no problem mon.” I leave his music shack half hour later with my CD in one hand and a photo of him signing it.
We have been to so many wonderful places, and most often we have the best experiences when we venture away from where the masses gather. In Puerto Rico my senses thanked me for walking off into areas where only locals are to be seen. The smell of Puerto Rican cigars along with pictures of Jesus goes hand in hand with the aroma of ground coffee and sounds of Latin music filling small street cafes.
There is a district in San Juan that is referred to as the Old part. When you walk down the narrow cobbled streets you pass colorful walls of houses and beautiful wooden doors. It is quiet around here and you can literally peer into the lives of the people through the rustic burglar barred windows when you walk by. I see two elderly brothers nimbly rolling and smoking big cigars. I see an old man reading a Spanish newspaper in a small side street bar while the barmaid prepares a Chelada for another man smoking his pipe. You see well-fed street cats. You hear Cuban music and see high ceiling fans in street cafes, barely rotating yet just enough to stir the humid air around, like you would slowly stir a vente macchiato.
Street art La Perla, San Juan
La Perla, San Juan
“Ola senor, you wan some teqeeeeela?” I had to look around for a bit to see where the question was coming from. From behind a rack stacked with beautiful bottles filled with different flavors of the mescal party sauce, Jose makes an appearance. He can’t be taller than five foot and I reckon it’s the weight in gold on his teeth that make his neck seem to disappear into his shoulders. He has slick jet-black hair combed back and a little something in his eyes that reads he is a sneaky little bastard. I say to him: “Mmm, solo estoy mirando amigo, gracias.” “Ah you can speak some Spanish?” “ Si senor, empoquito.” Big mistake. He rambles off in Spanish and clearly didn’t get that I told him I only know a little. I give in to his urbane manner and decide to have a few. He makes me laugh and unlike loosing control over inhibitions after a view of these, the free tequila starts giving extra grip around the Spanish words rolling off my tongue. By the seventh one the words come cracking out my mouth like a Mexican bullwhip. “ Quisiera comprar dos botella superior tequila por favor.” I went in just looking and ended up stepping out into a more potent sun with two pints of booze. I am buzzing and as I walk away I hear him trap another victim. “ Ola, you want some teqeeeela?”
Mexico has so many flavors that need savoring. In many ways I am reminded of the perceptions I had about China before I went there. Just like it is actually quite hard to find sweet and sour chicken in Chongqing, you wont just find tequila-drinking amigos wearing ponchos and sombreros sitting against cactus trees in Mexico, at least not on the Caribbean side. The food is simple but full of flavor, the chilies pleasantly caliente and tequila is not just chugged down with salt and lemon – you take sips at it slower than the actions of a Mexican emerging from a midday siesta.
The recipe for a disastrously good time
Lately, when we are out at sea, the ship has been making noises that will scare even the Kraken away as it rocks and rolls along the ocean dunes. The season has changed. The usually flat and calm Caribbean Sea is angry and wild. The changing color of the ocean in some places is indicative of storms approaching and palm trees are bending a few degrees more than when we first arrived. I go for a last walk on a beach that I fell in love with four months ago and with only a ghost crab to share the scenery with I cant help but wonder how much longer it will stay a lonely view. I have to drag myself away from the beach. The wet sand stuck on my feet evokes this thought in me that in the same way that a spiced Caribbean rum draws flavor from its wooden barrel, my blood has soaked up so much of the goodness that gets blown in by the same trade winds that brings both sustenance and change.
Caribbean colors, Cayman Islands