August 2, 2000
Safe below the Hurricane Belt
All told, we spent almost a month in Grenada, mostly lolling about Mt. Hartman Bay, waiting for guests and continuing to concentrate on the simple pleasures of this life – touring, reading, eating food that was good and solid. The island’s topography, again, was lovely, but not as outstanding as others we’ve fallen for.
We found the locals absolutely delightful, however. Jackie and Mel have friends whose son married the daughter of a St Lucian mother and a Grenadian father. We spent an afternoon on Feisty with Harry and Rose Jacobs, just kind of chewing the fat (though let me quickly dispel any thought that Jackie served even a single gram of such noxious stuff). The six of us explored our cultural differences and shared the constants that lay just under our different colored skins: human goodness, moral perspectives, that universal hunger for closeness and fun.
Harry and Rose emigrated to England, where for twenty odd years they worked hard at the kind of low level jobs available to London blacks, Harry as a bus driver and Rose as a geriatric care giver. They lived frugally, raised their family and saved their quid – enabling them to return to the Caribbean in their late middle years, buy a piece of land, build a nice home, and live comfortably. Both of them echoed our Ruth when they told us the hardest part of returning was the chilly welcome of schoolmates and friends who’d remained and resented their old friends for the wealth years of toil abroad had brought. For by island standards, they are indeed wealthy.
Starvation doesn’t exist because of the island’s agricultural bounty and because, almost of necessity, people simply take care of each other.
“I might be an agricultural man and you might be a fisherman,” explained Darius, our taxi driver and frequent island squire. “Let us say that I need two pounds of fish. So I will carry home two pounds extra of my harvest for you and you will give me two pounds from your catch and at the end of a day, you can eat a meal and I can eat a meal.” This informal network of family and neighborly sharing seems to be fairly universal. I tried to imagine how it might work back home, but my visualizations dead-ended at dukes-up Loehmann’s dressing room battles and near-punch-outs alongside Manhattan parking spaces.
Darius was one of our favorite Grenadians -- a genial and ambitious man of about 60, a former prison guard. He struck me as the diametric opposite of my personal or journalist experience with police and any description I’ve ever read of prison guards. But Darius believes treating prisoners like human beings earned him both popularity and respect among the inmates. He was thrown out of work with a change in administration and took up hacking, an iffy occupation in Grenada due to a glut of drivers and the availability of cheap buses. But, much like Martin in Dominica, Darius created a comfortable niche for himself by making himself indispensable to the cruising community – ferrying us to events and airports, organizing sightseeing and shopping tours.
He took a whole gang of us far up the eastern coastline one day, to the northerly fishing village of Gouave, headquarters of the island-wide celebration of Fisherman’s Birthday. This annual tribute to Grenada’s fishermen begins in early morning with church services of thanksgiving; from there it pretty much develops into a tumultuous free-for-all -- a festival full of screaming kids jumping off piers, get-down-momma dancin’ in the streets, band after band and speaker setup after speaker setup, all blaring deafening music whose beats sets your heart thumping against your ribcage and your whole body vibrating. Plus a glorious array of street food, most of which I tried: from the more workaday fried chicken and kingfish to barbeque ribs to conch stews to jerked just-about-anything to trays of fish and banana lasagna. All downed along with bottles of freezing cold beer.
In Grenada we also got an entirely different perspective on
Reagan’s 1983 invasion of the island to “free the American medical
students.” As liberals of the
highest stripe, many of us believed this to be an imperialistic hoax foisted
upon an independent nation, another hysterical McCarthyish response to a
socialist presence in the Americas and a thinly veiled attempt to rid a foreign
entity of pro-Castro sentiment. In fact, we learned, most Grenadians believe to
a certainty that the American students were one day away from being taken
hostage. The socialist government, which, in a 1979 left-wing coup, had wrested
power from the island’s post-independence democratic administration and
executed the lawful prime minister, was widely hated. The ultimate tradeoff for
the better medical care and schooling socialism brought was freedom. The new
government banned newspapers and all opposing voices were carted off to jails.
Today most Grenadians are verbally effusive over their love for Americans and
regularly refer to Reagan’s action not as an invasion but as “The
Good luck charms
At long last, after we’d more than had our fill of nutmeg- and rum factory tours and seam-bursting dinners, July 1 arrived and Darius drove us to the airport to pick up Gary’s Deck Bunnies, Jane & Chris, who crewed with us during the 1500 rally that brought us down here in November and were raring to sail with us again.
This time Carolyn, Jane’s life partner, came too. Carolyn’s landlubbing stance on sailing seems to be -- on the whole, she’d rather be sucking on a lemon. She arrived utterly stressed out -- she’s an overworked endocrinologist - her face scrunched into a knot, feeling, no doubt, like a piece of American Tourister luggage. Taking a look around, she pronounced Lulu fit to spend serious time on and proceeded to do exactly that. By the week’s end she’d melted into a relaxed puddle of a human being and she left claiming the title of UnderDeck Bunny. All the Bunnies voted Gary an Honorary Lesbian (as many of you know, he’s always suspected he’s a lesbian.)
When Jane left us after the 1500, she promptly quit her job – as an overworked plastic surgeon. Since then, she’s formed her own practice, on her own terms. She’s ecstatic to be making more money and able to take off sailing whenever she wants. She even won a huge judgment against her former partners, who refused to make good on her written contract.
By Day 5 on Lulu, surfeited with sun, snorkeling, Sumo-sized meals and plenty of reading, Carolyn announced she was quitting her job, to a round of cheers from Jane and Chris and Gary and me.
Careful, workaholics who visit us.
Carolyn has just emailed us to say that she’s already landed her dream job – at Columbia Presbyterian, where she’ll be seeing patients part time, but also teaching endocrinology fellows and tweaking the hospital’s Osteoporosis Center until it’s the best in the city.
They have decided we’re their official good luck charms. Carolyn writes, “I thank the Goddess Lulu for casting her spell and creating the magic that allowed it all to happen!” We can live with that.
The Bunnies came with 12 suitcases – nine of them were filled with an unbelievable amount of stuff for us. The tenth was Chris’s prodigious camera and video equipment, which kept her absorbed all week, hanging over the lifelines to shoot rambunctious seas and scaling masts to capture postcard-worthy reef configurations. I don’t mean to imply, however, that Chris didn’t keep up her end of the drinking, laughing and hugging marathon.
So really, as guests, they packed appropriately light. Jane apparently bought out her local butcher and stuffed his entire inventory into traveling coolers. Besides steaks and lamb chops, we got regiment-sized quantities of duck breasts, tartare-quality chopmeat, exotic sausage combinations, a whole mess of big fat knockwursts, and plank-thick sliced bacon. Chris brought 10 pounds of our favorite Trader Joe’s coffee – and, since she’d forgotten to grind it in the store – a coffee grinder. They brought Fourth of July tee shirts for all of us and champagne to toast with. Full service guests!
Down the way, where the skies are gray
With Feisty, we all sailed back up to our beloved Tobago Cays for a few days before leaving for Trinidad, a 15-hour overnight trip, starting at 2 AM. The Lulu crew (minus Gary, who never misses a chance to sleep) stayed awake for a glorious sail down that featured beam reaches, a glorious sunrise, an anvil-cloud squall and Bloody Marys at dawn.
So now we're in Trini, so far beastly hot, humid, buggy and birdshitty. A few miles from landfall, the water turned from crystalline aqua to a swampy brown. Guide books say it’s merely the overflow from the Orinoco River, which is meant to imply Lulu’s watery new milieu is a mixture of fresh waterfall spring water and “clean” mountain mud flowing down from Trinidad’s highlands – however, we see all about us a thick layer of iridescent opacity -- oil slick from surrounding rigs and nearby refineries. We also watch marina dockworkers toiling all day picking out plastic bags and bottles, log shards, Styrofoam and other assorted detritus out of the water. It’s a Rorschach copy of trash-infested New Rochelle harbor at high tide.
Oh, and it’s rainy. It seems to rain part of every day. Usually when we’re about to have some outdoor work done – like gelcoating or mast painting or stainless polishing or hull waxing.
We’re told Trini has more charms. Hmmnnn. And that people either love it or hate it here. So far Gary’s definitely in the latter column, but I, who’ve always maintained I could live anywhere –even Peoria – am still straddling.
The first two weeks we were stuck “on the hard.” Now that might sound like a pleasant place to be, if it were some kind of veiled sexual reference, but what it actually means is Lulu was hauled out of the water and placed on a series of upholstered tripods to cradle her on land. A wobbly metal ladder that seemed to me about 100 feet tall was slapped amidships along the hull for us to board the boat.
Though we were greeted by a jungle of masts in the distance as we entered Chaguaramas harbor, we were unprepared for the cohesiveness of this cruiser network here. Because Trinidad is the first safe harbor below what’s considered the hurricane belt, it has turned into Summer Central for the yachties who remain downisland. But, since it has few calm gunkholes to anchor in or acceptable anchorages with clean enough water for our watermakers to process for drinking, we’re stuck, for the most part, in big, full-service marinas, with pools, washing machines, decent showers, weekly potluck diners and other social activities.
We’ve become part of a veritable bungalow colony of boaters. It so clearly evokes for me the late 1940s and ‘50s – when nuclear families clustered in the Catskills and Poconos, self-exiled from the airless bedrooms, steamy streets and the sticky tar roofs of Brooklyn and Bronx apartment buildings.
Now tied up side by side along the docks, we’ve finally met face-to-face lots of the voices behind the boat names we heard bandied about all year on our SSBs.
Despite the opportunities for conviviality, we rarely have
time to share among us our winters-worths of sailing and storm yarns – the
yachting equivalent of tall fish stories. That’s because we’re occupied
almost full time trading maintenance horror stories, bandying about the names of
workers to avoid. Which often seems like everyone. Jackie and I have been
amassing an exhaustive compilation of Trinidad contractors – a sort of
Zagat’s of Trinidadian Tradespeople. (Naturally, it also includes a couple of
restaurant mentions here and there.)
While there are flood-level quantities of work, the boatyards have no stable of experts to draw from. And so the saying goes, “Last year’s dishwasher, this year’s diesel mechanic.” You can never be sure of the skill level of the person you’ve just hired to ply his trade on your boat. There’s no such thing as gelcoating tricks of the trade handed down from generation to generation. Moreover, talented workers flee their employers to start their own businesses with the regularity of the fickle tide deserting the beach. So last year’s best sail loft – which you’ve just hired to make your new mainsail -- may have a stable of workers who haven’t wielded tape measures until yesterday.
Thus, we have to beware of scores of small cottage-industry shops that do upholstery and sailmaking, diesel and refrigeration repair. Skill level is one factor, but consciousness is another. With scant long-term experience to define quality work, the results can be calamitous. Stir into this recipe for disaster the overarching Trini “psychology of “Yes.” As in, “Yes, Skip, I can do it.” “Yes, Skip, no problem.” And, “Yes, Skip, later.”
If you’re not careful, it’s easy to hire an unskilled waxer who’s told you he can varnish your interior wood, no problem. While you’re thinking your cabinet doors are about to become full-length mirrors, he’d just as soon apply varnish with an emery board as a sable brush. We’ve seen cockpit cushions being delivered with seams only a woodchuck could pride himself on. And striped patterns that somehow got sewn into plaids -- or diverge from their intended paths like highway forks. You’ve got air conditioner ducts that deliver sudden blasts of sauna-quality steam into your cabins. All delivered with the most ingratiating of smiles and only the best-intended results.
So, of necessity, all of us beached cruisers have taken to nattering obsessively about tradespeople and contractors (we, for example, need one in almost every category.) After three weeks here, Gary and I have adapted – alas, two weeks too late -- a rule that dictates we will never hire any Trini until we’ve been at least two weeks.
There’s good news, though. I’ve finally been able to replace myself in the category of nail-splitting, back-twisting maintenance jobs. Tons of eager independents – I think of them as the Spiff Army -- walk the docks offering to do work at bargain prices, especially compared to the usurious US boatyards we’re accustomed to. Unskilled laborers here command $24 a day US – we can have our entire boat waxed and all the stainless polished for $250 US, where we might have paid $1200 before for a less professional job.
You can almost never go wrong with these people, except that some work harder under the broiling sun than others, so the job may take longer than you expected. There is, however, employer shame to contend with – the sleaze factor, if you will. It’s the distress associated with paying what feels like slave-labor wages, with taking advantage of this literal sweat shop. On the other hand, one guilty boat owner who offers to pay $50 TT ($9.00)an hour more can bring down the whole pricing superstructure and incur the wrath of his fellows.
At the very mention of such a possibility, my long nescient Designer Clothing Demon snapped to attention, visiting upon me the syndrome my friend Joan would recognize as Donna Karan-Deprivation Distress. A dressmaker here can allegedly copy any pair of pants she’s presented with -- a truism we are currently exploring full steam.
It occurs to me I may not, in fact, have carried over the Boating Contractor lesson into the Clothing Creation realm.
Within two days of our Trinidad landfall, I had purchased four lengths of cotton drill, in shades of khaki green only an Army Lifer could distinguish among. That was just for starters. Two days later, Jackie and I mounted an assault on the Port of Spain fabric shops, where I emerged with at least four more shades of green, plus white, black and non-military, more Gap-like shades of khaki, all for craparound shorts and Capri pants. We also purchased an assortment of cotton knits for shorts ensembles and some pebbly linens for the kind of loose flowy separates that function as our dressy clothes. These unstructured garments hide – at least we pretend they hide – the results of the kind of lunch and dinner excesses we are prone to.” As Ruthie would say, they hide the weight we’re adding.
The dressmaker we foisted most, but not all -- this bounty on was aghast at both the quantity of fabrics, their complete similarity to one another -- and the fact that we are each making exactly the same items in the same colors.
A pair of Capris or shorts costs less than $20 to make, a tank top around $10 – including pattern making and personal fittings. We’re trying our best to stay the same size between fittings.
Every Trinidad Spring brings the return of many hundreds of Leatherback turtles. These, I guess you’d call them pregnant, females arrive storing 800 to 1000 eggs fertilized as far north as Newfoundland – on those inky, subzero Newfoundland nights during romantic trysts when the color television isn’t working. Subsequently, these females wend their way, swimming as much as 50 kilometers a day, some 2500 miles back to Toco Beach, the very beach where they were spawned 20-or more years ago. These Mama turtles then deposit their wombfuls of eggs in installments of about 80 to 100, every 10 days or so. Eight weeks later the new babies are born.
Tour operators offer the Turtle Watch spectacle biweekly, and it has become an increasingly popular visitor attraction. The outing includes a bus ride north to the remote and unspoiled Toco Beach and an overnight stay at a charming waterfront hotel ornamented by a happy mix of authentic naif, folk, tropical and African artifacts. Gary and I even had our own mosquito-netted double bed, making me feel I had stepped into a Graham Greene novel.
From what I’d heard, a turtle watch looks like a middle-of-the-night convention of 30-or-so camera snappers hovering over a single female Leatherback turtle spread-eagled on the beach. Both point-and shooters-as well as Nikoners dangling Howitzer-size lenses try hard to control twitchy shutter fingers from taking the pictures they seem to like better than observing the actual event. Picture taking, except during one segment of the turtle’s labor is forbidden, as camera shutters and flashes can distract the huge marine turtles from their single-focus -- digging holes deep enough for their eggs to hatch in relative safety.
Concurrently, these nose-to-the-ground intruders are sniffing around for tiny, inexperienced newborns to break out of their shells and be confronted with the daunting specter of imminent death. A hatchling’s only hope of staying alive is to make it down the beach and into the water without first being eaten by razor-beaked vultures and sharp-taloned frigate birds who, smelling their next meal, blacken the sky above. Unfortunately, this watery salvation is just one more illusion, because there they are prey to any passing fish or pelican who’s bigger and swifter.
I couldn’t decide if this Turtle Watch thing was going to be a thrilling celebration of the miracle of life, or a disgustingly ghoulish, voyeuristic human intrusion on what might otherwise be a sacred ritual. Or just one more lesson in the faceless, heartless indifference of nature.
The reality had aspects of all these scenarios, though none as dramatic as my imagination would have it. The surprise element that colored the experience for me was the turtle’s blind, dumb, completely mechanized compliance with genetic instructions she neither understands nor dares defy. Her appointment with evolution, though performed on sand, is written in stone.
We noted enroute to the hotel’s dining lanai we’d been blessed with an ideal night: a silvery full moon --hazed over ever so slightly by the occasional passing cloud -- hanging over blackened shadows of palms that rim a slender but perfect white arc of beach. All surrounded by a steep mountain of jungle rising straight out of the water as if presiding over all life below.
Just as the group’s anticipation had reduced most dinner conversation to desultory murmurs over coffee, an announcement came that a turtle was arriving. Abandoning seats and sandals, we rushed out -- ignoring completely a sudden downpour. We thundered down the beach to the site of the lone turtle that had so far materialized out of the breaking waves. So far, according to the script.
At the height of the laying season – May and June -- Toco Beach can be infested with massive hulks of female Leatherbacks. We met only five in 2 ½ hours spent on the beach before we felt we’d seen enough. Seen enough because every turtle performs the identical ritual:
As they approach the beach, the giant gumdrop-shaped turtles seem more propelled onto land by the strong surf than purposefully swimming to it. Their powerful front fins take over when they hit the alien dry land, whereupon she lumbers, almost drunkenly listing from side to side, up the narrow band of beach, presumably toward the relative safety of the tree line. Her arrival can only be stopped by bright lights, sudden noise or the downwind scent of humans too near by.
Randomly it would appear, the mother turtle – who, at maturity, can be as big as eight feet long, four feet across and weigh a ton – selects her mound of sand. Settled on this slight incline she begins sweeping the sand with her long front fins, repetitively in a kind of land-based breast stroke. Ultimately this defines a circular moat around herself.
Now her truncated, paddle shaped back fins begin slapping repetitively at the sand behind her, like twin metronomes. She rocks back and forth slowly, almost obscenely humping against her personal slope of beach. This rocking seems to enable what looks at first glance to be a set of useless rear appendages to dig a hole far deeper than what would appear possible.
She is virtually motionless. Long front fins are stretched out perpendicular to her carapace; her dull-eyed prehistoric face turned sideways; her clenched sawtooth beak burrows into the sand, as if to connect once again with the smell and texture of her own sandy birthplace. The hush surrounding her is pervasive, but for the sing-song scraping and tossing of sand from the deepening hole. Eventually, about 45 minutes after she starts, when her back fins can no longer reach the hole’s bottom, all movement stops. Egg laying begins, suddenly, silently: clusters of slick, gelatinous white ovals about the size of jumbo chicken eggs, are expelled into the hole, as if propelled by an unseen pinball plunger.
The turtle herself is now oblivious. She has entered a trancelike state, where she hears nothing, can be poked, prodded, petted and photographed. We were invited to examine her. She is a most untraditional turtle – her back is gray, black and white, in a stripy polka-dot pattern that in no way resembles more comely cousins with the rich brown square-patterned shells. Rather, her shell is fluted in long, deep, scalloped troughs. In fact, leatherbacks are so named because their skin is thin, their shells flexible, rather than hard, almost snakelike.
The monotonous, hypnotic digging motion is unstoppable – primordial urges drive her to repeat it and repeat it though a fin may be damaged, virtually useless. We watched one perform this rite of her species’ renewal, with one fin bitten half off, likely by a shark. A second that night continued her digging though with each backswing one bleeding rear fin was cut deeper and deeper as it scraped repeatedly against the sharp tip of one of her shell flutes.
Leatherbacks are the largest of all living reptile species, although their diets consist only of jellyfish. (I certainly couldn’t do it without at least some peanut butter.) One-hundred-and-twenty million years old, they have survived all the earth’s Ice Ages and the extinction of most of the flora and fauna on the planet, despite the odds of individual survival.
When she emerges from her trance, the mother turtle begins circling the mound, sweeping the piled-up sand back into the hole with her rear fins, tamping down the moat with the frontals, hiding, as best she can, the babies she’s going to leave behind. She works meticulously, tirelessly and then, without a glance back, trundles, exhausted, back into the water. At this point her instincts have performed admirably; but the information at her disposal doesn’t tell her she should have any further interest in these future children. Her brain – no bigger than a human thumb – can’t think the thought that they may be in danger. And so we watched with baited breath as another of these tank-like females emerged from the water and headed straight for the mound her predecessor had struggled so mightily to dig and conceal. Luckily, the new arrival swerved and chose another site – passing them by mere inches.
More likely executioners are the predator birds, who attack the hatchlings when they – some 80 days later – break their way out of the leathery white eggshells (it must be like an ant punching its way out of a chewed wad of bubble gum) and burrow up through the sand tomb their mother hid them in. It’s said that only one female out of a litter survives to become an upstanding, mature egg laying citizen of her universe.
While there was simply no mysterious aura, for me, anyway, in this rite-of-life turtle performance, the theme – the persistence and transcendence of life forms, was inescapable.
Shazzam - Dr. Plastic turns Mr. Softie!
Don’t know why – maybe it was the texture of the leatherback’s skin -- but my normally dog-hating, cat-scorning, animal-averse Gary suddenly turned soft-shelled during this turtle experience.
Long story. (Sorry…again.) For political reasons – turf battles among warring factions in the village that seek to protect its turtle progeny – we never got to see any babies break free en masse. Seems one uncredentialed group of local young men recently decided to comb the beach in hatching season, collecting the babies, placing them in plastic tubs for the day and releasing them directly into the water at night. Their authority to do so was opposed by the entrenched powers-that-be in Turtledom -- the officially-sanctioned guides who oversee tourists and describe the egg laying process.
We, the tourists, became pawns in their pitched battle. Having intruded – for a good cause, it’s true, into the natural evolutionary process and removed the babies from the beach – these upstart youths chose to flaunt the guides’ power and so released the hatchlings into the reef area while we ate. We were enraged, but futilely so, that we’d been robbed of half the process we’d come to see.
Undaunted, the next morning (after breakfast, I shouldn’t have to even say) Gary walked down the beach during a thrumming tropical rain, determined to find at least one baby making its way down the beach. The other three of us remained to eat several spoonfuls more of granola and yogurt, keep dry and read our books outside on the divine, tree-shaded porches of the hotel surrounds each room with.
Walking under the treeline, Gary came upon a hole about a
foot deep. There he spotted a hatchling, upside down, flailing its miniature
limbs – a sight that evoked tender feelings even in this hardest-hearted among
the Animal Indifferent. Gary -- just as instinctually it would appear as Mama
Leatherback – he reached in and flipped the baby over in his hole. The
hatchling, no doubt still flummoxed by his rude awakening into life, struggled
Gary, now converted to the role of worried, self-proclaimed protector, hovered over his new buddy, Little Larry Leatherback, until he was safely enveloped by the surf. Larry’s watery sanctuary was too rough for Gary to follow him in and swim back to Nova Scotia, despite the lure of its namesake salmon. He trudged back up the beach and settled for some stray slices of baby-back bacon.
How quickly we forget.