June 27, 2000
New York bound
Let’s see, where was I? Seems it was back in Guadeloupe when I last wrote. Hard to believe that was three months ago. There’s been a lot of water under the transom since, though most of it happened back in the States. I’ll try, though I can’t promise, to bring you all up to date without making reading this a full time job. (Although now that I’ve been reacquainted with the breakneck pace and frenetic lifestyle of our former home, it’s clear only diehard fans or retirees will read this anyway.)
Leaving Lulu wasn’t easy. Each time I did some boat chore -- polishing, washing, dusting, knotting, anchoring, docking -- I felt like I was saying goodbye to her, knowing how long a stretch it would be and how gloomy it would make me to be away from her.
This life is just so wonderfully stressless, despite repairs, red tape, scrubbing and scavenger hunts for decent paper napkins, which, it turns out are even harder to find than paper towel. Bounty or its kin is available though ridiculously expensive.
I was sure I’d miss the azure vistas and green scenery, being constantly drenched in beauty. I wondered how I’d feel about the Easterns-seaboard pace, since we’re not used to too much complication in our life. And with virtually no intellectual or cultural stimulation beyond Michener’s “Caribbean,” I wondered if I’d be able to hold up my end of a conversation.
I needn’t have worried. We got right into the swing. Easy since the swing involved swinging cradles and baby swings. Plus nuzzling infants, playing pattycake and wee-wee-weeing piggies all the way home. Diapering skill and stamina, not intelligent chitchat or glittering repartee, were what was required.
Baby Sammy Nitkin made our reentry easy by arriving the day before we got home. Big, good natured, with cheeks instantly rivaling young Maggie Wollman’s, he comported himself admirably through his bris in Baltimore. So did his sister Ronnie, who is the most unjealous older sibling imaginable. Then I spent mucho time awaiting the birth of Suey’s baby, meanwhile occupying myself shuttling back and forth down to Philadelphia, to the growing-more-adorable-by-the-minute threesome, Maggie, Timmy and Zoe, all of whom are beginning to catch up with other 20-month-olds developmentally.
Visually they’re off the charts, especially the two girls, who are huge (blue) eyed, curly-haired blonde Gerber types. Their older brother Timmy, who has two minutes on Maggie and four on Zoe, mostly gets his way with them. He seems to be aware of his edge, plus he knows what he wants – usually what they have – and he simply goes after it. This generally leaves sweet Maggie befuddled and hellion Zoe, well, mad as hell. That’s about the degree of their interaction with each other – for now anyway. They haven’t figured out how to gang up on their parents yet. Maggie is willing to kiss just about everyone and everything; Zoe is more selective – saving herself for her Mommy, her pillow and her pacie. Though by the time I left she was willing to kiss my picture, if not always actually me.
Too late in April, if I’d had my druthers, Suey’s obstetrician decided the baby, which appeared from the outside to be occupying at least half of Suey’s 5-foot 1 ½ person, was not going to budge itself from its breech position and that she – now carrying up around her throat – could be categorized “ready to give birth.” Dr. B. is a man whose name I’ve already consigned to the dustbin of memory, memory being an increasingly scarce commodity anyway. This not only because he prolonged the pregnancy, at least to my I-want-my-grandchild view, but because he forbid Suey do the AntiguaNew Years trip. And most recently, nixxed her going to Mel & Jackie’s son David’s wedding. This, by the way, was the third prong of reasons for our New York visit.
So, Ryan Isaiah did not make his appearance until April 19. We rejoiced, for his arrival, of course, but also because his name turned out not to be, as we’d been led to believe, Isaiah Ryan. Weighing in at 8 pounds, 11 ounces, he was a big bruiser with a shock of strawberry blonde hair and a footprint the size of Paul Bunyan. He appeared to be not only good to look at but also well-behaved, an excellent feeder, and all the other wonderful things. The well-behaved quality unfortunately deserted him early on.
Another one of life’s most profound and special treats is experiencing your daughter become a mother. I felt particularly lucky because my children, Tony as well as Susan, invited me to be with them all through Delivery Day. I picked them up at their apartment, drove them to the hospital, stayed with them during the long pre-delivery hours, watched Tony jump into hospital scrubs, kissed Suey goodbye on the way to the OR, saw her wheeled off pregnant and brought back a mommy. I met our new grandson when he was no more than 40 minutes old. What with the array of acceptable, indeed encouraged, anesthetics during my childbearing era, I didn’t get to see my own children that new.
I felt like an expectant father waiting in the lounge during Suey’s C-section delivery, and when a nurse returning from the OR told me my daughter’d had a boy, I dissolved into a mini torrent of tears – of joy, of relief, of disbelief, of reverence for the process of life and of pride in my child. I watched Suey start breast feeding while still in the recovery room, hovered over Ryan in his hospital basinet, helped dress him to go home and got to spend the first few sleepless nights at home with them. I shared their first parenthood panic with them, most specifically the helpless first night home when Ryan scratched his cornea and, \ couldn’t tell us about it -- except by screaming inconsolably and incessantly until we took him to the emergency room.
When he was a week old, Gary and I made his bris, where this very goyish looking little boy officially became a Jew. He also picked up a tiny blue suede yarmulke and a Jewish name – Nachum, after my father Norman. Ryan Isaiah Nachum Gomes, a name reflecting virtually all the elements of Ryan’s dappled international and cultural background: Irish, Portuguese, Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish), Catholic, Jewish. The bris was a first in the Gomes family, Catholics all. Many attended and seemed to, if not enjoy it, then take it in stride. Hospital-averse Gary held the baby through the procedure and Ryan, Suey, Tony and I held up quite well. Suey did even better than expected, having already put in long, apprehensive hours crying at the fate to befall her baby and at her role in bringing it about.
The single downside of so much connection was distress over my inability to comfort Suey through those weeks of initial abject terror, of utter helplessness in the face of this tiny but all-powerful infant. I could recall for her those first days 37 years ago when I’d put Bobby down and begin dreading his awakening, obsess about what he’d do next and whether I’d be up for it. It hardly helped. All mothers go through this, but my daughter suffers particularly in the learning-curve department – she wants instant mastery in order to feel she’s got a new job or project nailed. Unfortunately there are no rules for mothering. Ultimately you’ve got to accept that almost anything that includes the word “love” works.
Mother’s Day was an unmitigated delight. Sammy, Veronica, the triplets, their related parents -- plus the bonus Wendy and Uncle Jeff -- converged on New York for the day. First we set Ronnie loose in a toy store with instructions to buy whatever she fancied. There was, in all her 2 ¾-year life no precedent for such a treat, and I think we nonplussed her, at least this once, though probably never again. Her cravings extended pretty much to things she already owned. Mother Karen began sweeping the store on a determined mission to unweight the shopping cart’s preponderance of girlie items -- doll accoutrements and cooking sets. She succeeded in getting Ronnie’s acceptance -- indifferent, it’s true --of a tool box and golf game; however, the hands-down favorite acquisition was a new stroller for Tallulah, Ronnie’s “baby.”
We followed the shopping spree with a really well behaved restaurant lunch -- not a “moops” out of any one of the babies --after which we wheeled them to Central Park, where John and the triplets posed for a snapshot under the “Wollman Rink” sign. The four cousins, all of them now walkers, then cavorted about the Great Lawn in a roaring display of camaraderie. It was simply grand. Ryan didn’t quite make it to lunch or park, but we all drove up to his house for the assorted aunts and uncles to greet him, and for Suey to meet Sammy.
It is a peak experience to walk behind John as he wheels three grabbing, jabbering babies in a triplet stroller about the size of a Ford Escort, observing normally unflappable New Yorkers screech to a halt to ogle them - even construction workers, who normally pay homage only to big tits and long legs - hardly attributes of these 19-month-olds.
All this interaction made it really hard to leave the children and grandchildren when it came time. The hardest part of our new life is having your heart and your two feet in two different places – in Paradise adrift and in Paradise adiapering.
Tongue-tied and toe-tied
A second biggest indignity turned out to be wearing shoes. I never realized what a joy it is to go barefoot continually -- hell on the sole, but heavenly for the soul. My toes protested the entire visit.
Another persistent difficulty cropped up: our inability to communicate to friends what our everyday life is like. Moreover, exactly why we love it. Everyone needed an answer to the question, “But what do you do all day?” -- an effort that invariably brought wall-eyed, glazed-over expressions and silences that screamed, "And you think that's fun?"
And indeed, frequently enough in the telling even I found myself looking askance at myself while eulogizing an afternoon spent unearthing garden hose parts or refrigeration pump brushes in dark, dusty stores. Or, a morning getting into whatever the local “big” town is -- in pursuit of, say, salsa, or the even more elusive tortilla chips -- sardined with 20 other sweating bodies in a hot, dusty 12-passenger bus. Or, heavy laden and trudging along muddy, rubbled, steamy streets packed with vendors hawking pockmarked fruit and beaded necklaces not even third grader would string, the straps of our bulging knapsacks strained to their limits by iffy bottles of $15 wine, or wan-looking vegetables.
But the point is not what we do, but that we’re doing it. It’s our utter satisfaction with a simpler life, one that excludes hierarchies of status or reference to money – except, of course, it cost a fortune to get here.
A case in point: Russ Newman, a new sailing friend, whose ruddy complexion and disposition, I’d guess, easily lent themselves to apoplexy back at work in Buffalo. Russ recently told us about reentry into his old life after six months doing “nothing” aboard “Deliverance.” First came frequent fretting about what the hell he was doing there. Then he had lunch with his best, and boyhood, buddy, who, after listening to Russ extolling the joys of his daily life aboard a 36-foot sailboat, commented: “You know, I don’t have any idea what drives you any more.”
“You don’t understand,” Russ discovered himself saying. “That isn’t even a question that interests me any more.”
Similarly, our friend Wally, writes, “Where are you guys??? Damn, I do miss being on the water. It’s odd: I was never busy or too busy and the days passed so fast that we didn't get to half of what I planned. That is the stupid part, why would it seem neat to have time pass faster?? A real pain being back at my business because I had spent about half a year handing off all my responsibilities prior to the trip. Now I am back and they don't give me anything to do. Going golfing at 11:00, to hell with it…”
One of the most refreshing oddities of this life, especially compared to our other, is that even after spending weeks with people, sharing buses, dinners, happy hours, we rarely know what they “did” in their former life – or indeed whether they may even still be doing it. The question just doesn’t come up.
People aren’t their occupation or profession – they’re just who they are and what they have to contribute to a conversation, a quandary or a question.
Nor is anyone ranked by boat size. For all we know, Russ aboard his 36-footer has 10 times what we do in the bank. In fact, we’re sure of it!
The sailing life comes with a blanket permission to talk to strangers, which makes it easy to form instant bonds. These new floating friendships, frequently, sometimes painfully, transient, somehow capture and encapsulate the essence of connection. People are always their best, most generous selves. They always leave you with a good flavor in your mouth.
Speaking of flavor brings me back to New York, where our frequent gourmet meals began to fill the emotional void, the psychological yearnings and physical cravings created by the utter absence of Caribbean cuisine. It’s true the locals are good with the many home grown spices – curry, allspice, mace, nutmeg, peppers in a variety of sizes, colors and temperatures, but we tired of the Creole style early on, since most every entrée arrived blanketed in a curried sauce that tastes so remarkably similar from one island to the next you’d swear it comes out of a doctored-up Knorr envelope.
Yes, in the French islands we got some very good meals, but that was long ago and in any event, none compare with New York or authentic French interpretations. At the Caribbean-style Italian restaurant, spaghetti is usually overcooked in the early morning and reheated to a pudding-like consistency before appearing on plates at night. Passing for Filetto di Pomodoro sauce at a recent “Italian” lunch were some smashed tomatoes, three days from ripening, tossed with half-sautéed onions (only in the onion arena do they recognize the words “al dente”). The closest Caribbean chefs get to Italian is if they’re Rasta, at least rhymes with pasta. Something critical gets lost in the translation even if a Neapolitan trains an islander to cook Italian.
In the former English colonies we get dry fish, leathery pork or chicken legs (the breasts, we think, all go to KFC) plus an overkill of starch -- rice and beans, with a potato salad accompaniment -- and a few sparse, oversteamed vegetables. We keep forgetting just how uninspired English-inspired food can be.
Nor do we see much fresh fruit or vegetables, despite the abundant vegetation and rainfall. Most of the Caribbean islands have hitched their economic wagon exclusively to the almighty tourist dollar, abandoning agriculture to their more southerly and poorer neighbors. But these islands can’t afford the luxury of keeping their produce for local consumption; they thus export virtually all they grow. Most of the fruit in markets falls into the categories of anemic, bruised, overripe or undersized. Bananas are sometimes decent, but we’ve had to forget about grapefruits, oranges, pineapples, papaya. Melons are very iffy - if at all. And all of it very expensive. Even the outdoor native markets haven’t much more to offer.
So, taking full culinary advantage of the East Coast, Gary stuffed himself with cheeseburgers at all his favorite Manhattan haunts, plus al dente pastas Amatraciana, thick aged steaks, and crunchy-crusted Italian toasted breads, preferably oven-warmed and slathered with icebergs of butter -- so that in record time he lost the flat-bellied look he’d returned North with, the first flat belly I’d seen on him since around 1972. As for myself, I eliminated the burgers and added takeout Chinese and Vietnamese and so accomplished a similar pulchritude. Fortunately the Cohen wedding occurred three days into the trip, early on enough so that my dress slithered over my hips, but only after I’d maxed out on control-top panty hose beneath it – two pair, in fact: one extending toes to tits, the second, shorter but stiffer pair allotted the job of advanced thigh-bulge control.
Parenthetically, David & Al’s wedding was a warm event -- if not exactly in temperature (it snowed heavily and unseasonably on Sunday) then in happy feelings. It was an all-weekend affair, with lots of far-flung family and long-term, close friends celebrating the union of two fabulous people at a quaint, history-studded inn in the Adirondack countryside. What could be bad? Allison was radiant, even for a bride, and Jackie looked particularly gorgeous, even for her. She was decked out in a Vogue-worthy slate blue dress, set off by a Crown-Jewel quality earrings and an Ace-bandage wide bracelet encrusted with diamonds (the finery borrowed, I’m bound to say: yacht upkeep neither inspires nor requires nor permits, for that matter, extravagant jewelry purchases).
We’d been moored in New York so long – eight weeks -- it began to feel like permanent dry-dock. Dinghying around Caribbean harbors had became a beautiful and very distant dream. It seemed impossible that we had ever lived anywhere but New York – or even that I’d ever lived in one place – the only things missing were a Kilim rug and some tent poles. My cosmetic bag never got unpacked and my black suitcase lay in the closet panting to get out and visit grandchildren.
Although we had slipped quickly and easily into the groove of living back on the East Coast, it's a very dark narrow groove -- no stars, no sunsets, no fresh air, constantly confined to small cars – not to mention having to endure traffic jams again, the former bane of my existence. An unexpected benefit of being asea is the total absence of traffic jams. So it didn’t take long for me to feel that one more gridlocked parkway could blossom my case of advanced road rage into behavior worthy of landing me in a paddy wagon instead of a dinghy. I did my level best to self-medicate and contain it by shopping a lot. This is one reason we ended up at JFK with two suitcases and five cartons – none weighing less than 60 pounds, the centerpiece of which was a colossal-sized hamper full of Stew Leonard’s meat.
It looked like we were leaving without them when, at 6 AM on May 23, the American agent behind the counter informed us the airline no longer accepts cartons. Fortunately, money frequently greases the most rusty and intractable of bureaucratic wheels.
Another sticking point seemed to be the dry ice in the meat container.
“It’s a hazardous material,” we were informed sternly.
“I was told we could bring it if we declared it and filled out some forms,” I answered.
Yes, he allowed, that, plus a $40 surcharge would get it on the plane.
“Oh,” observed Gary, “so if you pay $40 it’s no longer hazardous,” a smartass remark that could have cost us both dearly in cholesterol.
This meat purchase also threatened to prove a stunningly stupid move: namely, bringing a significant cache of frozen meat to a freezer that, our boat watchers had advised us, conked out the week after we left. Obviously my faith in Gary's ability to diagnose the problem and repair it before $400 worth of prime meat defrosted was unwavering.
My backup plan, to host a massive impromptu barbeque Rodney Bay barbecue, proved unnecessary, since Gary fixed the freezer within the first 15 minutes: something about pump brushes, but what would I know of such matters -- the only brushes that interest me are those with a bottle of wine.
Gary couldn’t wait to get into this project -- and many others -- so as to avoid those seven hefty suitcases and cartons cluttering the marina doci. Because the boat was tied up bow in to the dock, the only point of entry was over the bow rail. Getting them aboard thus required somehow hoisting them up about three feet and over the pointy bow rail, while, at the same time, not slamming them either into the anchor’s prongs or into the water below. Both of us had secretly hoped at least one -- not the meat, of course, would get routed to Togoland for a day or so.
Getting them below was daunting proposition, but we soon had to tackle it, as rain not only threatened, but arrived. It has remained with us on and off ever since. We even had an entire day of rain, which we hadn’t encountered since Hurricane Lenny. Between the daytime squalls and nightly storms, we set the boat right again. I mounted a major assault on our deck mildew, which occupied the better part of two days, and it seems to be gone for now. (Of course so was maybe an eighth-inch layer of teak.)
Past experience tells me I haven't driven it away and the unsightly black blobs are probably already staging a massive return. Experts say salt water is the only way to maintain teak decks. But when you wash them down with salt water you get salt (i.e., imminent corrosion) over all the metal, so you have to wash that off with fresh water. Which starts the mildew growing again. No one wins this game.
One day we actually had a dayworker to wax all the fiberglass -- part of a new strategy to finally do some reading and relaxing on this boat. But it's clear one dayworker was a nice but paltry stopgap and the maintenance treadmill threatens. Still, I did make some headway into my stack of New Yorkers. In fact, in these weeks I shot right through them from January through May. I also finished making proper Trip and Triplet photo albums, plus I started several novels.
The boat finally operational (or so we naively thought), we started the engine to move on and it promptly died. Seems it lost its prime (now that I understand viscerally). Two hours later Gary had it humming along, so, again, I hauled up the anchor. But instead of gliding smoothly up and into its slot, it executed a very unanchorlike wiggle, hit a hydraulic hose and sheared a hose fitting, whereupon great squirts of black oil began spouting -- oil, forgive the wordplay, over my lovely hard-won decks.
I got the message: Lulu ain't leaving that day. Or the
next. Because we discovered that though we could get parts Fed-exed from Miami
in 24 hours, it was Memorial Day. (It’s amazing how we lose track of not only
dates, and holidays, but even the days of the week.)
From what we knew of parts and mail making it through St. Lucia customs,
we figured we might still be checking out Rodney Bay restaurants on Labor Day.
Not the worst place to be though. We’d discovered a local thin-crust pizzeria
plus a delectable Indian and a passable Thai restaurant.
Meanwhile, a local Rodney Bay bar gave us our re-introduction to Island Time and the average St Lucia IQ level. Fifteen minutes after sitting down at one outdoor cafe for a bite of lunch, a piano-legged teenage waitress named Tara lumbered over to us, her ample thighs squishing audibly under a black miniskirt (meanwhile, I hesitate to wear bathing suits!). Sweet-faced and well meaning, Tara kept with military precision to this quarter-hour visitation schedule, whether she had anything to deliver or not, making a two-sandwich snack almost an all-day affair. We began feel like surrogate parents. I considered making some wardrobe enhancement suggestions.
On one of these arrivals, Gary asked for a pitcher of water instead of a glass. She looked quizzically at him as if he’d launched into Urdu. He resorted to a cross between semaphore and charades to describe a quantity of water larger than a single glass. she returned, not with water, or our sandwiches, as we had hoped, but with an announcement that “the large containers of water only come in flavors.” She returned a quarter-hour later.
“How is everything?” she asked. Not an answerable question since all she’d put before us was a glass of water and a place setting. We did try to keep up our end of all this good will by giving her high accolades for the nice pink napkins.
The chicken sandwiches we eventually were served weren’t bad and fortunately they came amply mayo’ed because this was not a place I’d ask for extra sauce.
With all our restauranting and the constant showers we barbequed not an ounce of our new treasure trove of meat (truth be told, I'm hoarding it -- sort of opening the freezer a couple of times a day and drooling all over it.)
I should probably write a book called “365 Reasons We Have to Go Out for Dinner, Honey.”
Despite the three weeks spent in St Lucia we didn't see much of the island, except driving to and from the airport. On our last day, we toured the drive-in volcano, a rocky mass of spouting, gurgling, gaseous sulphur pools, bubbling up from the bowels of the volcano beneath. A very unusual, if regurgitatingly smelly, tourist attraction. We also anchored at the Pitons one night. They were as magnificent as their billing promised.
The Pitons, French for peaks, are twin cliffs, dramatic, green and uninhabited, that rise straight up out of the ocean. Thrust out of the earth some 30 to 40 million years ago by a volcanic eruption, they tower over the sea like two enormous breasts, the valley and anchorage between them a fit haven for some giant sea god to lay his head.
Gary and I viewed the Pitons at dusk from a restaurant tucked into the valley, with terraces that sighted out between their twin silent bulk, while a sinking lavender sun thrust them into purple velvet relief. Later, in the dark of a night almost empty of stars, they hovered above us while we lay spreadeagled on our softly rocking deck, as if alone on earth, staring up at their massive brooding shadows, eavesdropping on the winds whooshing around them and congratulating ourselves on choosing such a way to live.
With the hurricane season approaching, we moved quickly on to Bequia (pronounced Beckway) a small, unpretentious island with a big, well-protected circular harbor that’s as comfy as an old sofa. It’s a popular haunt for yachties, but we had no one to hang with, since most liveabords have already deserted these islands, either traveling back to the US or further down island to safer storm areas. Weather kept us socked into Bequia longer than we would have liked, because rainy season is upon us and tropical waves roll in every few days now, traveling across the Atlantic from Africa.
In and of themselves, tropical waves aren’t much more than rain, turbulent seas and high winds, but these are the weather events that under the right atmospheric circumstances can transform them suddenly into tropical storms and hurricanes. You don’t want to be out there making a passage during a tropical wave, so we have to wait for the weather windows between them to get further south.
This year will bring an above average number of hurricanes, say the experts. One of the weather seers, a Professor Gray (as apt a name as Paul Humann, who writes about the creatures of the Carribbean) is this year forecasting 12 “named” storms, that is, tropical storms with winds above 39 miles an hour, of which eight will develop into hurricanes, winds above 75 mph. He says four will be intense – above 96 mph, like Lenny, whom we met last year.
Making up for the less-than-idyllic weather conditions we’ve encountered since we’re back are two things: it’s mango season and the flamboyant trees are in bloom. The flamboyant is a shameless hussy of a tree; its foliage fanning out above the trunk like the skirt of a flamenco dancer, in broad, flouncy layers of vibrant red-orange. As if the color weren’t dazzling enough already, new buds pop out from inside the blossoms’ fiery centers like pale pink sapphires. We decided the adjective that derives from this tree’s name simply doesn’t do the tree justice. Flameboyant would have been more apt, voted Gary.
As to the mangos, they are mouthwateringly sweet-sour. When I peel them the juice runs almost down to my elbows. In Bequia we could have picked them off the trees. Mostly we buy them from street vendors or at the weekly outdoor markets. The tradeoff for an ample supply of these heavenly fruits is the fly population that accompanies them. With hatches open all day, by nightfall we can have a hundred or more of these supreme annoyances zooming around the boat. They’ve turned me into a cursing, stomping, and fairly ineffective, Big White Hunter. Gary has scored more game. He’s taken to closing up the hatches, spraying insecticide bombs, then rocketing up the companionway and locking the boat. Half Half an hour later he returns in triumph to vacuum up the corpses. We get maybe a day’s respite before the next infestation: because during their residency, however brief, they have laid the eggs for the new generation. Still, a plague of flies is better than what comes next: mosquito season, which has no mango compensation and is followed by a noseeum infestation we hear.
The highlight of Bequia was a drive out to Brother King’s Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, a desolate spot on an empty beach where a 62-year-old character named Orton Graham King is waging a one-man campaign to repopulate the local waters of turtles. More specifically, of the hawks bill turtle, so-called because of its sharp, horny beak. The son and grandson of fishermen and turtle trappers, “Brother” King himself once helped to deplete the very supply he seeks to replenish, catching them in nets or during free dives, down 60 or 70 feet, back when scuba equipment hadn’t been invented. Turtle shells, strong, bendable, stunningly patterned, were used for eyeglass frames, pocketbooks and decorative accessories. They were hunted wantonly until synthetic tortoise plastics came along and ecological evangelists began taking up their cause.
The beach where King’s rudimentary, open-air wood sanctuary building now sits was, in his youth, a turtle spawning ground. Hundreds, thousands of hawks bills hatched there, and, enacting their ancient genetic legacy, returned after three years to lay their own eggs Five years ago King says there were no turtles at all. From one pair of hawks bills, he harvested 185 babies, built concrete tanks for them, fed them and nurtured them, treating wounded soldiers when they used their sharp bills to peck and bite each other.
We hung over the open communal tanks, observing this aggressive species circling ceaselessly: scrabbling, shoving and sniping at each other. Their mottled shells are whorled with shades of ivory, brown, green, terra cotta and black, their strong swimming fins speckled black and ivory. As of last year, King, who is neither a veterinarian nor a trained marine biologist, had returned 413 of them to the local waters. Fully mature at age 40, they ultimately grow up to 200 pounds and live some 200 years.
He talked to us and to his progeny, many of whom he knows by name, while ministering to them – tossing food into their pools, crooning to them, picking up the wounded, examining them and spreading gentian violet on their cuts, his own mottled, age-spotted hands echoing their black and white fins. “I know them like people know their children,” he remarked. ”I just have look to know when something is wrong.”
The newly hatched babies
grow twice as fast under his care as they would in their natural aquatic
habitat. Scientists, he said, scoffed at his experiment, predicting the turtles
would become docile and unable to find food in the wild. “I don’t put the
food in their mouths,” he objected. “I just give them a head start in
life.” When he releases them --
his favorite part of the job -- he swims and snuggles (his word, not mine) with
them, watching them adjust to their new environment. They hang around for up to
six hours, he said, start scavenging for algae, sea urchins, fish, coral–
whatever they can find -- and eventually swim off into the current. King fully
expects to be seeing most of them back in the next few years, taking up the
ancestral rite and laying their own eggs in their former birthplace.
We bought the tee shirt.
And set sail again, this time just a short little hop to Mustique, the ultimate in “company towns.” The island is private and run by the Mustique Company, the chief employer to many of the native residents, who number 206. They keep it squeaky clean and perfectly manicured for the owners of the 80-some odd local homes: gracious villas, huge mansions and palatial estates, set apart at distances from polite to painfully private, around the island’s fields of palms, beflowered hills and chalky beaches. The most benevolent of employers, the company built its employees decent homes with gorgeous sea views, pays their medical expenses completely and educates their 21 children in a spanking clean, buttercup yellow A-frame schoolhouse.
I’d never really heard about Mustique and I imagine that’s deliberate. It’s the kind of place whose name pops up in the pages of rags like the Star and the National Inquirer, “Linda Evangelista and her latestest boytoy -- in the buff!! accompanied by helicopter photographs of a well-oiled naked couple sharing a chaise at the exclusive hideaway of their host, David Bowie.
Not surprisingly if you think about it, one of the three boutiques is a first rate antique shop, whose inventory of oversized furniture and accessories, what with the size of the homes that need new baubles for their redo’s and renovations, probably turns as quickly as, say, your average Carmine’s restaurant table.The small food market has an ample offering of pates, terrines, Margaux and champagnes. Plus there’s a teeny bakery whose selling area is not much bigger than a New York coffee cart – but it’s run by French owners, so the bread and croissants are about the best we’ve bought since St Martin.
Princess Margaret sold her spread, but Mick (Jagger) still owns his and Tommy (Hilfiger) is building a hotel-sized complex practically next door. Neither invited us over for a drink on the evening of our one day there. (Guess we weren't dressed ratty enough for the one, or, on the other hand, too ratty for the other.) We had to settle for dinner overlooking the harbor in a candlelit restaurant set with crystal, china and real linen napkins. With an insistent Caribbean wind blowing, the mast lights of the boats below us swung back and forth like a string of party lanterns.
We were the only guests -- everyone who was anyone sharing cocktails at the hotel’s tony Cotton Club Restaurant. A staff of 10 tuxedoed waiters and maitre d’s fluttered around us, as if we were the resident Lord- and Ladyship. Our clothes, of course, were utterly wrong, but they politely ignored that, but the whole meal felt a lot more creepy than it did romantic in the silent dining room. The night was cloudy and starless and we walked up and down the steep, curvy unlit road to the restaurant, the way lined with succulents, flowers and pristine white curbing. We don’t see this kind of stuff in most of these islands, where even sidewalks are a luxury.
Mustique is lovely but a
one-note melody and we hoisted anchor the next morning, bound for the Tobago
Cays, which, before Columbus proved otherwise must have been tagged one of the
ends of the world.
It’s glorious. Off your boat’s nose a foamy white surf breaks on a long stretch of reef -- which reads like a dark brown fence separating our little patch of aquamarine water from the endless turquoise sea beyond. Next stop is Africa. The cays, for us Relaxation Central, are no more than a few tiny islands inhabited only by palm trees, surrounded by a series of reefs.. No phones, no restaurants, nothing but beach and reef and surf and palms. The perfect magazine cover.
Believe it or not, there are some things I haven’t told you about: Dominica before our New York sojourn, a side trip to Barbados since we’re back -- but now that I’m writing again, I will, as the English say, revert back to you that stuff: Meanwhile, you’ve got plenty on your plate. Which is exactly how I like it best.