Photos: Susana Youngsteadt

                                                                                                                           Be Here Now: Petit St. Vincent         page 2


By Susana Youngsteadt


            These facts anger me, an American of Scottish (and partly Irish) descent, and I'm disturbed that Caribbean tourism bureaus ignore them. Shamrock logos and touristy pub crawls fail to plumb the depth of Scottish and Irish experience in this part of the world. Remnant communities here date back to the highland removals of the 1700s, and Jacobite rebels who survived bloody battles were exiled here. I hope to encounter their descendants, the fabled green-eyed Africans who still carry Scottish surnames.


            I have my first encounter with a true Vincentian at the resort’s main farm. "They call me Indian," says Elvel Gaymes, head gardener of PSV Resort, as he tends young pumpkin plants. He is a proud Black Caribe, a unique cultural group formed on St. Vincent when escaped slaves joined Caribe Indians and held off colonizers for more than 150 years. Surely this man would understand my search for lost highlanders -- victims of the same "Old Foe," England. But faced with this smiling gentleman on a sunny day, I don't have the first idea how to broach the subject. I ask a few questions about the resort, and I can barely understand his answers. "Excuse me?" I ask again

and again. His creolized English, known simply as "dialect," was developed when planters forced slaves to learn the Queen's English. They learned, but they also created a sub-language designed to make the colonizers feel -- as I felt now -- more than a bit inferior.


            I say thank you and start to move away when Mr. Gaymes clearly says, "I have another plantation on the island," offering clear directions to a second resort farm. His choice of words is not lost on me. Today, the past -- however painful -- seems vanquished in the life of Elvel Gaymes, a man who grows elegant produce for world-class chefs in paradise.


            I walk on, knowing resort workers are the lucky ones in the Grenadines. Poverty and unemployment are the legacy of colonialism on most Caribbean islands, and many thousands have been forced to emigrate to survive. I think of the dog-eared diagram of my own Scottish family tree, where shortened branches end in terse notes: "Gone to South Africa, "Gone to Australia," and in my family's case, "Gone to America."



            I head for Marni Hill, one of several high points

on this craggy volcanic island. Parts of the hike are very

steep, and today -- like most days in the Grenadines -- the

temperature stays near 80 degrees. All around, tall grass

and wind-blown brush are sketched in charcoal and beige,

punctuated by slashes of vibrant green: giant cactuses

towering 10 feet high. This is the end of dry season,

and every fiber of this evocative landscape yearns for the

coming downpour. I drink in the Marni Hill view of Petit

Martinique, less than a mile away, and imagine women peering

back, looking out from small homes that cling to its rugged

hillsides. Many wait for husbands, sons or daughters to

return from jobs at this resort -- jobs many have held for

decades, even generations.


          

             A huge cotton plant anchors a corner of the path, puffs of white fiber dangling from gnarled black pods. Could it have survived since the 1700s, when French slave-holders owned PSV? Was it tended by the lone Catholic priest who tried to farm here in the 1800s? Perhaps Arthur Oliverre, the cotton farmer who owned the island in the early 1900s, paused to examine this very plant. His daughter kept Petit St. Vincent in the family until the 1960s, when the island's current owners developed the resort.



              I arrive at the dock for a scheduled snorkeling tour and encounter resort guide Larrie DaSilva, a smiling 26-year-old Petit Martinican with caramel skin and green eyes. Yes! I think to myself. The Caribbean's Scottish remnant!  I follow behind him, snorkeling near shore, where the water is so clear, I feel like I’m flying in liquid air. Boats nearby fly like airships from one volcanic peak to the next. Larrie lifts a white spiny sea urchin from the mostly empty bottom, offering it to me underwater. Startled by the soft texture of the spiky globe, I smile a mouth-full-of-plastic smile.


            "It's OK to touch the white ones," he explains later, "but touch a black spiny sea urchin, and your vacation is over!"

            He picks up a lone lobster, and we stand up to look at it. The creature is dead and partially eaten."Fish eat each other," he says. "That's the way life is." He assures me I'll have a more dramatic sea-life encounter tomorrow on my day trip to the Tobago Cays, known as one of the best snorkeling spots in the world.

            Finally, I work up the courage to say,"Larrie, your looks are very interesting." He smiles and laughs a nervous laugh. "Do you have Scottish blood?" I ask.

            "Yes," he says shyly.

            "Yes!" I shout in my head. I am face-to-face with

the archetypal Caribbean Gael!

            "Oh, no." He quickly says. "I don't know about that."

            "But your eyes -- they're green, like mine." He shrugs

and looks down. I've made a mess of it. I've embarrassed him.

"Well, you must be Catholic," I say cheerfully, pointing to the

rosaries draped around his neck.

            "Yes!" He nearly shouts his answer, his hand reflexively

reaching for the beads, "I am Catholic." His tone conveys

reverence, and I’m struck by the irony encountered so frequently in this part of the world: Early Catholic conquerors -- Spanish and French -- may have slaughtered natives and traded slaves, but they planted a faith that sustains this young man and the other 1,000 residents of Petit Martinique to this day. And it was faith they needed when planters abandoned the Caribbean following emancipation of the slaves. Thousands emigrated over the years to find work. "More of us live in Brooklyn than on Petit Martinique," he says.


            Larrie's cohort, Ron Isaacs, emerges from the dock house. I've heard he creates the beaded jewelry sold in the PSV gift shop. "I could feature your jewelry in my article," I say magnanimously, feeling no small amount of power. "It might generate a lot of business for you."

            "Oh, yes," he says politely. "But I only make the jewelry when I'm in the mood. If it turns into a business, then I have to make the jewelry."

            "And you wouldn't want to do that?" I ask.

            "No," he says, gently shaking his head. The young men turn to each other and converse in what sounds like a different language.

            "What language are you speaking now?" I ask.

            "English!" they exclaim together, laughing.

            "Did you say something about me? I ask, embarrassed. ”Were you making fun of me?"

            "No!" they exclaim, genuinely distressed. "No, never!"

            "In school the teachers speak like you do," Larrie says. "They try to make us stop speaking dialect, but we are proud of it. We won't give it up."


            To cap off our water-sports outing, I agree to head into the trade winds with Larrie on a Hobie Cat -- a contraption made of little more than a trampoline mounted on a set of pontoons. A giant sail powers the craft with a single canvas strap to hold onto. I have complete faith in my captain. I'm not so sure about me as we take off at what feels like 50 miles per hour. Suddenly, Larrie leaps to the other side of the trampoline, shouting, "Tack!" over the pounding of the Cat's framework on the waves.

            "What?" I yell.

             "Tack!"

            "What?" I can hear him. I just don't know what he wants me to do.

            "Move to the side!" he yells, pointing.

            Attempting to comply, I end up on my stomach, pinned by the wind and facing headfirst into waves breaking over the speeding trampoline. He slows the craft, gently asking if I'd like to head back to shore. Spluttering, I say yes. He kindly drops me off, scrambles back onto the Cat and flies away.


            Now, don't get me wrong, I am not afraid of boats --

real boats with seats and sides. And here in the Grenadines, it's all about the boats -- from dinghies to launches to water taxis. But the mother of all boats here -- indeed, the matriarch of all Windward Island schooners -- is Jambalaya.

            "We're going to tack -- sail out of the way to catch the wind," Captain Jeff Stevens shouts the next day as he

maneuvers the 73-foot schooner toward the Tobago Cays.

It is a term with which I am now familiar. "That's the whole point of sailing, isn't it?" Stevens asks. "Not just to turn the engines on and get there, but to get there under sail!"


            We skim past Union Island and Palm Island before the wind shifts north. Secure on a bench next to the captain's chair, I watch as the mate brings the 65-foot mainsail around. Before long I'm lying backward, pinned against the back of my seat. Gun-metal-gray swells rise and fall just over my shoulder as the schooner tilts nearly to the water's surface. I throw my head back, thrilled. But across from me a married couple sits ashen-faced, arms folded, staring down at their laps.

        "Look at the horizon," the captain shouts at them, but they are beyond help. Unable to raise their heads, they weakly shake them ‘no’.

            Suddenly I'm leaning forward, bracing with my feet, looking sharply down across the deck. Bright white foam disappears into blue waves directly over the shoulders of the rigid couple. As soon as the ship rights itself, they scramble below.

            "That's the worst thing -- going below when you're seasick," Stevens says to me quietly. But below is where they stay as Jambalaya glides past Mayreau island and approaches the five uninhabited islets called the Tobago Cays. Stevens anchors away from the thickest concentration of visiting yachts.

            Now's my chance to ask the captain, an Englishman raised on the Isle of Wight, about legendary Scottish boat builders who came to the Grenadine island of Bequia in the 1700s. Their descendants, who still live on Bequia, helped Stevens build Jambalaya in 2005. Why had the Scots come to the island, and what were all those boats used for?

            "I guarantee they don't know anything about that anymore," he says crisply. And that's that.

            I wonder sullenly why the issue is so important -- why my Scottish roots matter so much to me. "It's your identity," comes the answer from a voice in my head. And that's that.

       

        "Are you coming?" asks first mate Timothy Frederick as he lowers an inflatable over Jambalaya's side. About a half-mile up-current we don masks and stretch out on the water. It's impossible to brood over history when confronted with a Technicolor here-and-now. Silvery jacks and rainbow runners gather less than a yard away, circling a brain coral 3 feet in diameter. A juvenile angelfish swims right up to my mask, inspecting it with a youngster's lack of inhibition. When we make eye contact, the little fish literally jumps, darting off to the left. I hold still. He turns and swims back, tracking me with a sidelong, one-eyed glance. After one more pass, the coy, almost flirtatious encounter is over.


            Calling us to the rubber launch, Tim hands out Ritz crackers. "Hold your arm straight out in front of you," he says.

            I kick off, extending a rigid arm into the empty water with half-smashed crackers hidden in my fist. Before I can open my fingers, a flashing ball appears, exploding into a starburst of fish -- some tiny, some big as a finger, others as big as my hand. I let go of the crackers, and the darting mob devours every orange morsel. Each new face in the undulating mass is more beautiful than the last, appearing and disappearing before I can fully take them in. From that moment on, any objection I may have had to artificially baiting fish with snack food will be overpowered by the memory of that fleeting, flashing moment.


            We snorkel our way back to Jambalaya, no longer isolated from the crowd. Many more yachts have arrived, and a local man in a small wooden boat is selling fresh lobster to a couple on the deck of the yacht nearest us. Capt. Stevens waves to another vendor, known as "Mr. Quality," who brings his launch alongside. "I like to see some tourism money go to the local people," says Stevens. I couldn't agree more, eagerly shopping from Mr. Quality's array of T-shirts. After our transaction, with two passengers still disabled below, Capt. Stevens gingerly sails back to PSV.


            "Oh, the Scots and Irish were treated terribly," says Lisa, the PSV masseuse, who lives on nearby Grenada. She dispels any romantic notions of the noble Caribbean Scot. "Scots were hired by the English to be the overseers on Caribbean plantations," she says. "So you won't find much sympathy toward the Scots in these islands."


            All right, I concede to myself. There's no doubt some Scots policed the plantations, others hired on as militia to quell slave uprisings, and some built ships that transported human cargo.  But what about the uprooted Scottish peasants? What about the exiled freedom fighters?


            “Their story's been lost," she says, matter-of-factly. "The Scots get lumped together with the English in our minds, even though some of them were victims." Tempted to ruminate on that injustice but calmed by an expert massage, I drift off to sleep.


            Early the next day I arrive at the resort's beachfront barbecue, greeted by chef Anthony "Jamaicy" Ferril, who presides over the buffet table. Nearby, chef Yuri Thomas grills rock lobsters to perfection. Elvel Gaymes' homegrown vegetables appear in the Caribbean salad, a dish made unique by the texture of local potatoes -- a cross between soft, stringy yams and firm Idaho spuds. Polenta, or cornmeal mush, is a tasty staple in these parts. "In the Caribbean we don't call it polenta," Anthony chides. "We call it cou cou." His secret? "Add fresh coconut milk to the cornmeal, not canned -- canned is too sweet."


            The yacht folk who come ashore for the barbecue are polite and subdued -- no rich Frenchmen talking loudly on cell phones as other travel writers have complained. In fact, many of the yachts that cruise the Caribbean these days are chartered, not owned, rented by several parties at a time, like the two couples at the next table, partners in a plumbing-supply company in Colorado. My populist spirit is buoyed by the thought of luxury travel trickling down to the (upper) middle classes.


            On the final day of my visit, I wait on the PSV dock for the motor yacht Hera to ferry me back to Union Island for my flight home. I came looking for insights into the past but found a vibrant present in a beautiful part of the world. I shift my attention to the living color of the Caribbean Sea, and my heart breaks a little, knowing I can't spend the rest of my life staring into this beautiful blue.




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