GLUTTONY ON THE BOUNTY
September 14 to October 1, 2000
A day finally came that we could end the marina-bound months, throw off our lines and bid adieu to the grimy, gritty, garbage-strewn waters of Chaguaramas Harbor, beat it out of Trinidad and head briefly northeast, to Tobago, and then southwest, to the offshore Venezuelan islands, some 95 miles away. We’d hoped for a good long respite -- like two months – but had to settle for the 5 weeks left before it’s back home for Thanksgiving.
Now Lulu for these last months, mechanically speaking, has been a real doll. So you can probably figure out the rest. Departure date dawns and the main refrigeration pump wheezes to a halt, blithely ignoring a freezer full up with frozen French baguettes (there are the strangest cottage industries in Trinidad), and – I took it personally -- thumbing its thermometer at my hard-won, overprotected New York meats, which now needed (once again) to be packed up and hauled off the boat to another local restaurant’s freezer.. Naturally, it was Saturday, when any service business that’s open in the first place, shuts down at noon.
Ah, but our responsibility for Lulu’s and Feisty’s well-being had dictated the compilation over these last three months of a list Trinidad Maintenance resources, good and bad. A sort of Sailboater’s Zagat. As luck would have it, heading the shortish list of “good” is Robin Rampersad, who repairs motors. He’s since been catapulted into the (now) 2-line category of “excellent.” Taking on the challenge of not having the needed parts in stock, Rampersad exercised every bit of ingenuity one expects from a space-shuttle engineer, worked overtime and, for $200, rebuilt the pump so that we had it in our hands late Sunday. (Rampersad, by the way, is an Indian name whose popularity in Trinidad is roughly equivalent to, if not Smith, then maybe Green.
We never saw Shark and Bake in the Port of Spain/Chaguaramas area, but it’s offered by all of the many thatched beach stands along Maracas’s otherwise tourist-brochure sliver of horseshoe beach. Unanimous, impromptu on-land interviews sent us to Richard’s.
Shark & Bake turns out to be a fish sandwich, probably shark, though there’s no way to tell. Its secret ingredient, which sets it apart from other sandwiches, is the puffy, feather-light fried dough the shark floats amid. Richard gets the prize in that category, and for the array of toppings he supplies to accent an already majestically spiced hunk of fried fish.
Richard, a hearty chunk of a man himself, serves up the Shark and Bake personally, from behind his smorgasbord of twelve help-yourself bowls of exotic and workaday condiments (tamarind through mayo); salads (from cole slaw to stewed okra) and homemade sauces (from mild to scorch-your-tongue and in colors from green through maroon). After this delight, we endured – variously -- entirely satisfied taste buds (Louise), a stomach ache (Jackie) -- and -- universally, a rolly partial night of sleep.
We rose at 4 AM for an atypically peaceful crossing to Tobago. The Caribbean obliged Feisty’s family with a typically glorious sunrise. Because the passage there is usually a rough experience, with against-your-boat currents and a upper-level wind gusts Tobago is an off-the-cruiser-track Caribbean island. It also seems never to have been discovered by Mario Perillo & Kin. It’s poor but immaculate and – I hate to say it yet again -- dramatically beautiful. A four-hour drive along the two-way, 1 ˝ lane, mostly paved road from our anchorage delivered heavenly cliffside views of the ocean -- obstructed, not ever by a hotel -- but by jungle-lush foliage, brilliant bursts of flowers and the sinuous switchbacks of the road itself.
Hotels in Tobago tend to be primarily uncomplicated painted concrete guest houses festooned with colorful potted plantings. The postage-stamp villages bear wistful, paradoxical names: we passed through the entirely giltless Goldsborough and Louis D’Or; Betsy’s Hope -- which appeared never to have materialized; unalluring Glamorgan; Sugar Loaf, unsweetened by frills or extras of any kind.
Except in the capital, Scarborough, the island’s commercial establishments are tiny, stand-alone roadside cottages on stilts or one-room concrete bunkers, with quaint or grandiloquent names and trying-ever-so-hard signage: Automotive Spares and Accessories…Also Electrical Items! The Kountry Krest Cocktail Lounge, perched on little more than a hillock. Cee Gee’s Bakery…and Caterers. Eldora’s for Clothes. The Black Liberation Entertainment Center, which, with its few shelves of CDs, is Tobago’s beachfront answer to Sam Ash. We wondered what the selection might be at Afeishina’s Variety Shop -- “Welcome to Odds ‘N’ Ends Shoppe,” in the next village, seemed somehow more apt. (We couldn’t help chuckling at the “New and Used Body Parts, though speculating whether Jeffrey Dahmer had a hand in it was typically tasteless.
Yet we noted that every village, regardless of its economic straits, has some sort of Community Center. And virtually everything we saw along the way bespoke the Tobogan spirit, underscoring our own experience of a proud, outgoing, gracious people, who take the positive view and seem always to put a good face on things.
Still, ubiquitous concrete Central-Park-style benches, rooted in place at odd angles and even odder places pointed subtly to the 17% unemployment rate, as did the sight of two shepherds tending one lone cow already tethered neck and hoof. Everywhere were women sitting on porches, corn-rowing each other’s hair or simply gazing out over the road, and small clutches of men and women shooting whatever breeze there is in store doorways. “Yes, but what do they do with the rest of the day?” we wondered as we passed. It’s hard for us American types scurrying about even in supposed retirement, to believe probably more of the same.
For us, by comparison, disgustingly fortunate, Tobago was idyllic, greeting us with an immense, circular anchorage that, these days anyway, belies its name -- Man of War Bay. Today it’s populated almost exclusively by visiting sailboats and homegrown wooden skiffs, all outriggered by thin bamboo fishing poles arcing out like insect feelers. Ringing the beach is the – by comparison -- more upscale village of Charlotteville, its unpretentious rough-hewn charm accented by a smattering of more opulent homes, a modern library, a large well groomed soccer field, and a welcoming Catholic school that doubles – for merely the contribution of your conscience – as the local Internet café.
We were particularly enchanted by the “First Historical Café: A Tropical Chest Filled with Historical Facts of Tobago, 1498-1900,” where we stopped for a bite to eat and stayed for not-nearly-enough hours. Burnished walls of thick bamboo branches, along with the yellow, green and red color scheme reminded us we were in the presence of a reverence for Tobago’s African heritage. The walls and cubicles were lined with hundreds of poster-board signs, packed shoulder to shoulder, each one informing us of some facet of Tobagan history or African-inspired tradition.
These black-bordered signs, golden-yellowed by high-gloss varnish, were inked carefully, by hand, in square, black block letters, with important facts highlighted in red. Squinting, I could still see faint, ramrod- straight pencil lines, earnestly placed there to keep the text from straying off at angles. They took me back 50 years to PS 152 in Brooklyn -- to oversized “Capital Letter, small letter” oaktag penmanship borders in classrooms; to wide-ruled notebooks with marbled cardboard covers; to blackboards with railroad-track, thick white chalk lines drawn by spinster elementary school teachers. And to the no-nonsense, schoolmarmy, entirely respectful presentation of History, which is exactly what the First Historical Café aspires to.
The signs cover Tobago’s history from a wide variety of vantage points -- the simplest a running chronology of seesaw European invasions that brought slave trading, plantation life and, ultimately, cross-pollination of peoples: Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Polish and African – Mandingo, Ibo, Azande – all melded to the indigenous Amerindians, Caribs and Arowaks. Other posters addressed individual social, military and cultural topics: Family Life, Traditional Weddings, Festival Dances, Forts, Slave Trade, Sugar Plantation, Indigenous Language and on and on, up through the 19th Century with Missionaries, Steel Bands, Calypso and Carnival.
Trinidad -- not again!
After our three-month investigation of Trinidad’s more gourmet fare, in Tobago we ate simple, indigenous food at two local restaurants, or otherwise cooked on board. With the flat seas and uncharacteristic five-knot winds we encountered on the passage down, with sweet breezes and barely any rain in the 10 days we spent there, we were lulled into thinking the sea and the winds were our friends. Then a midweek morning’s SSB weather brought reports of Hurricane Joyce, possibly bearing down on the southeastern Caribbean, below 12 degrees Latitude, considered most ideal of summer hurricane holes. But Joyce, rather than moving swiftly north as most hurricanes do, looked like she might be considering stalling around 10.4 degrees for a temper tantrum -- or worse, veering straight west and spitting some of her vitriol directly at us.
With 21 boats in the huge Man of War bay, all resting peacefully and looking not very vulnerable at all, with breezes that had piped no higher than 17 knots, our first thought was to stay in Tobago, at 11.2 degrees: wait and see what developed next. But, our experience with Lenny last year taught us how quickly weather can change and summarily slam shut good travel windows. So we called Trinidad to reserve boat slips. Alas, dock space, what with all the myriad yachties insurance companies have pushed south of Grenada suddenly girding themselves for a storm, was about as available as a subway strap at rush hour.
However, we were lucky NOT to be there, we were told, since at 9AM that very day, "feeder" winds from Joyce’s predecessor, Isaac, had created an unusually strong westerly system, bringing three-foot waves and considerable chaos into normally serene Chaguaramas harbor. Our telephone source at Crews Inn -- whose motives may have been as transparently self-serving as wanting to keep us from the kind of badgering we are eminently capable of -- told us the surge had caused boats in Chaguaramas to break loose of their anchors, becoming dangerous short-range missiles that whammed into each other. With Joyce potentially on the horizon, marinas couldn’t even haul the long list of people seeking to protect themselves by rushing onto the hard.
Still, staying in Tobago meant when Joyce tracked north, as all weather pundits predicted, we’d be closer to her. Reluctantly, we decided to take our chances on space and move back to Trinidad, at 10.4 degrees Latitude.
We arrived to a slow-simmering panic -- because currents, rather than wind, were the threat. If Joyce stayed on her current path and struck Trinidad, Chaguaramas could expect harbor swells much worse than the scary one so fresh in everyone’s memory. We heard those waves had propelled one steel sailboat into both its marina neighbors, then hurled it up onto the dock, wiping away big chunks of pier. Masts on several boats tied up in slips had clanged together, or come precariously close, and a few hulls had sustained damage as they bounced against concrete docks. Even boats tied up in the Crews Inn -- Trini’s white-glove-and-parasol marina – had rocked wildly side to side, indecorously exposing far more of their bottoms than might be fashionable.
In wide-open, industrial Port of Spain, the surge was powerful enough to send an oil barge into a pier. Hull pierced, it gushed forth a good-sized oil spill. The slick raced up the coast, into Chaguaramas, where white sailboat hulls -- pristine from their daily bathing and waxing by $3-an-hour dayworkers -- everywhere were everywhere sporting wide swaths of black grease. The wooden docks were coated with thick layers of sticky gunk and the pontoons of dinghies riding up to them were instantly smeared with it.
A veritable regatta of boats was lined up waiting to be
hauled. We were closed out, though Feisty, whose extensive repair bill had done
wonders for the boatyard’s coffers, got special treatment. They were the last
boat hauled. In truth, perhaps foolishly (only the next 24 to 36 hours would
tell) Gary and I were not anxious to be hauled -- for some decent to mediocre to
downright piss-poor reasons.
First and foremost, there was Gary’s baroque optimism, his proclivity for painting most situations a rosy pink, and this one in particular, as a cloudless blue sky. Joyce would indeed veer north, would continue petering out and be a non-event in Trinidad, he predicted. Second, if we got hauled, what with the maze of boats on land, how many days would it take us to get Lulu off the blocks and afloat again? Third, we’d have no place to stay for however many days, since all available hotel space was booked.
In the hauling equation, also weighing (quite literally) on our minds was the prospect of dealing again with THE MEAT: begging a local restaurant for freezer space; packing it all up, yet again, in duffels; jacketing the duffels in lawn trash bags and miles of duct tape so as to camouflage them from snooping kitchen workers, who must not, at all costs, get the idea they contained slabs of dictionary-thick, USDA-prime beef, veal, lamb and pork, but rather were just some stray corpses that had slipped from ATA’s teflon grasp and were being held temporarily in cold storage. If all these efforts succeeded, post-Joyce, we’d have to hoist it back onto Lulu and into the freezer.
Up to that moment I’d considered my program of corralling superior, otherwise-unavailable cuts of meat and getting them down the Caribbean as merely indulging our Doberman-Pinscher-passion for steaks and chops. This commitment to continuous gastronomic delights on our plates necessitated paying an irritating -- but not irrational, I thought – amount of attention to ordering and amassing the stuff from an array of specialists; entailed a dollop or two of inner agitation about how to pack it properly and prevent defrosting; required willingly hoodwinking airlines ticket agents and customs officials to get it and off planes; worrying about the possibility of it getting lost in transit; unloading it onto the boat, removing it again during bottom painting, and most recently, freezer failure.
Suddenly, the prospect of dragging the goods across the harbor one more time felt like having to lasso our own heifer.
So, with Joyce forcing these kinds of Solomonic
considerations on us, I couldn’t help observing that in our thought process,
preservation of the meat supply was somewhere in the mix with preservation of
life, limb and Lulu. I had to pause, if just for a moment, to note that all this
gluttony on the bounty might not only be decadent, but, in fact, dangerous to
our health in the largest of all senses.
I might have stalled a while along such avenues of thought, but since the boatyard made this choice for us (“No Haul” meant no hauling), we could sit down to a succulent steak dinner and decide whether to stay put or leave. Because most of the lemmings had deserted, some of the safest slips – away from the channel – were available. We opted to tie ourselves up real good in the marina – just like we learned during Lenny preparations. Sixteen or so lines later, an anchor in the water holding the bow down and all 10 fenders positioned just so, we felt reasonably safe.
Six other boats from our original 1500 group were in Trinidad, which gave us plenty of opportunity for convivial grousing and groaning in disbelief that inside of a single year we’d had to deal with two hurricanes. Three of us were hauled, three stayed in dock and the grandfather of the group – veterans of three 1500s -- sought cover outside the marina. I must admit, watching Legend pull away from the dock sent chills down my spine and my heart to the pit of my stomach, while Gary’s response was to yell, “One of us is crazy, Paul!” (Had Paul any inkling of our meat tribulations, he’d’ve known exactly who.)
That made the oil spill, how to clean your boat, with what and was anyone going to pay for it the next items of concern. But not for long, because, within a day or two we were treated to – an earthquake! A 5.8 on the Richter scale earthquake. Sounds like a bigger deal than it was. I was below, I heard a big roar and felt a big rumbling that made the floor vibrate and reverberate beneath my feet.. I assumed the huge boat next door had started its engines and thought they were unusually loud. Someone outside saw the concrete docks around us actually shift forward. Gary saw nothing – probably had his nose in a piece of carrot cake.
Someone observed. "Surges, oil spills, hurricanes, earthquakes -- what's next around here -- locusts?"
I’ll let you know.