Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year’s Eve – or is that Old Year’s Night? – on the Wild Side (of Barbados)

For many years it has been a tradition among young Bajans, after the West Coast parties on New Year’s Eve - or Old Year’s Night, of course, as they know it in Barbados - to make their escape to the east coast to catch the dawn and sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

But what if you were over there already? It’s certainly a possibility. There is a good new place to stay on the Atlantic side. In early December the Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba re-opened after extensive refurbishment. Backed by the people who created Little Good Harbour outside Speightstown, the Atlantis should certainly make its mark as a stylish getaway in an unexpected part of the island.

And the Atlantis will be holding an Old Year’s Night party. It will be laying on a meal and drinks and a DJ who will play Old School hits. Ok, not so wild – and the guests might not still be awake at dawn - but there will certainly be breakfast and a hair of the dog with a cracking view - with the morning sun glancing off the sea swell.

And if you don’t quite make it for a New Year breakfast, then the Atlantis is well worth a stopover on a tour of Barbados, which every visitor should do during a trip. Perhaps go for the Sunday buffet lunch (for which the Atlantis was known in its previous incarnation) – which has already got the thumbs up from friends on their Facebook page. With the guys from the Fish Pot at the helm it is bound to be worth including in a trip this season.

For more information, see the Definitive Caribbean Review of Barbados Boutique Hotels.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Merry Caribbean Christmas

As we look forward to a break for Christmas (well, except for our partners in the Caribbean, who can expect their workload to increase with the Christmas visitors, of course), we thought we would share our Christmas card with you. And for a bit of sunny Caribbean fun, see below.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Definitive Caribbean.

Here’s a Merry Christmas in the dancehalls of Jamaica – /Great Tidings from Natty Dread!/ - courtesy of Mike Dread TV and Jacob Miller.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The SandBar - Anguilla Beach Bar

Opening in time for this season in Anguilla is the Sandbar, a different type of beach bar in an island that pretty much specialises in beach bars. Set on Sandy Ground, one of the island’s liveliest beaches, the Sandbar is not the simple wooden hut that you might normally expect of Anguilla. Instead it is in a former house among the palms and has a rather different feel. It is more of a lounge, with upholstered seats around the bar as well as some attractive wooden chairs and tables on the sand at the front.

And it is different in atmosphere too. Instead of the regular beer or rum and simple food, the SandBar serves cocktails wine and also tapas. So, while you take in the Anguilla sunset you can share:

Chilled, roasted vegetables with white balsamic syrup and a goat cheese dip, pork wontons with a passion fruit hot sauce or a red cooked duck and savoury pancake with mango chutney.

The Sandbar has been created by Denise Carr, formerly the executive chef of Cuisinart. Originally from Alberta in Canada, she has worked in California and Dubai. Then she came to Anguilla and worked at Cuisinart for three years. She opened up the SandBar in late 2009. With its extremely wealthy clientele, many of whom know the sophistication of St Barths, there was certainly room for a spot where they could kick off the docksiders but still enjoy top wine and food.

That said, for all its different atmosphere, the SandBar is by no means formal. This is Anguilla (not St Barths). And of course the activity will be much the same. Many a corsair - or is that carouser - has been wrecked on the sandbars around Anguilla. Long may it continue.

For more information about Sandbar, join their Facebook Fan Page.

For more information about Anguilla, see the Definitive Caribbean Guide to Anguilla

Monday, December 7, 2009

Indigo, a new Tapas bar at Montpelier Plantation

Montpelier, the delightful boutique hotel in Nevis, has just opened a new tapas restaurant for the coming season. Indigo is set in the open-air lounge just above the hotel’s pool and will be open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6pm to 9pm. It is the only place on the island to serve this style of elegant ‘light bight’ at the moment and so it adds a less formal option to the fine dining at Montpelier.

The menu at Indigo includes around 15 appetizer-sized starters and eight desserts, including sesame tempura shrimp, charred onion risotto with basil froth and chipotle pork tostadito, followed by a trio sorbet and/or a chocolate semifreddo. The tapas are designed both to be individual and to be shared and there is a long list of wines available by the glass, which can be chosen to accompany individual dishes of course.

Indigo will give guests of the hotel the opportunity for a lighter dinner and a change of scene, but for other visitors to the island - who should certainly include a visit to one of the plantation hotels on a trip to Nevis - it will also been an ideal reason to come and have a drink and something light to eat at dusk. The hotel is a lovely spot and it looks particularly good in the evenings.

The opening of Indigo has coincided with other changes to Montpelier. Around the pool itself the view has been opened out – the walls at either end have been removed so you can see the surrounding hills – and the murals, the scenes of Nevis surrounding the pool, have been changed. They now have a more contemporary pattern. This is in general keeping with gradual changes at the hotel, which are aimed to give it a more contemporary atmosphere all around. Finally, a spa treatment room has been created in one of the rooms and so massage services are now available to guests.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jamaican Slang and Caribbean Proverbs

The West Indians have always been lyrical and laconic. And they have a lovely turn of phrase, using things that surround them to near poetic effect, even when they are cussing you out. For a bit of fun we have collected some well known West Indian expressions, proverbs and sayings. Some even make into calypsos. One which did is –

"The higher the monkey climb, the more he expose..." (or ‘the more ‘e show ‘e tail’ in Barbados)

The more you show off, the more your faults are visible to those around you, or the more successful you become, the more you are under scrutiny. But, in Jamaica -

"Monkey know which tree to climb."

The ambitious person knows where to apply their energy. And while on the subject of animals -

"Evah pig got a Saturday."

Everyone will pay for his deeds at some point. And -

"Horse dead and cow fat..." In a long story it is used in the sense of ‘and so on and so forth’.

And then you add

"...and donkey maugre."

For islanders there is particular significance in -

"De sea ain't got nuh back door."

The sea is not a safe place so you need to take precautions. And the Jamaicans again -

"Dem go together like batty and bench."

Two peas in a pod. It seems that crows get bad press in the Caribbean. The Trinidadians will have it that if -

"Corbeau pee on yuh"

Nothing will go right, you have a hex working on you. The Jamaicans call crows ‘John Crows’ and delight in referring to moonshine rum, distilled but completely un-aged and un-mellow, as -

"John Crow Batty"

"Well, Cheese on Bread!"

(Barbadian amazement!)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Saba - The Highest Point of a European Kingdom

Here’s an odd fact you probably didn’t know about the Caribbean. That the highest point in Holland is on a tiny Caribbean island called Saba. Admittedly ‘Netherlands’ means ‘low-lying lands’, so you wouldn’t expect much, but Saba really is tiny. It’s just three and a bit kilometres by five.

But it rises incredibly steeply from the sea, to a vertiginous (well, comparatively vertiginous) 2885 feet, in the indomitable Mount Scenery...Saba, which is an autonomous territory of the Netherlands, is an extinct volcano, the most northerly of the inner chain of Eastern Caribbean islands. It is also a fantastically pretty island - but who would ever have thought it could be the highest point of a European Kingdom?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Death by Octopus - A Lobster's Fate

You’d think that being a lobster would make you pretty much invincible on the reefs of the Caribbean. This is possibly except where humans are concerned, who can simply pick you up and drop you in a pot of boiling water. But generally lobsters would be invulnerable, you’d think. They’re pretty heavily armoured. Their carapace is hard and covered with nasty spines. And some species have those fearsome-looking claws - you don’t want to get the wrong side of them whatever your size.

But then you probably haven’t reckoned with an octopus. These animals are fearsome, and spooky, worthy of a science fiction movie really. Each of its thousands of suckers has admirable sucking power, so it can grapple you and drag you down and it can change colour faster than any animal alive. It is even a shape shifter, making itself look like a sea snake or a lion fish with ease. Of course octopi have run riot in human imagination, which has pictured them large enough to sink a ship, but actually most are relatively small.

Not that this much consolation to your average lobster. And here’s a macabre thought. Imagine you’re an average lobster on your rounds, picking over the reef, when a massive blanket descends on you from above. It envelopes you. If you were a fish you would be dispatched with a peck that would break your spine. But for the lobster there is a nastier fate in store. All it can do is to wait - like a medieval knight unhorsed, in a suit of armour so immobilising that the first attacker will simply pull the visor aside and thrust a dagger into his eye. In the lobster’s case you must wait for the octopus’s incredibly sharp beak to peck a hole in your head, after which it will inject venom that will turn your brain to mush.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning - A Lesson in Manners

It’s one of those aspects of West Indian life. You are expected to greet people, when you meet them. Even if you don’t know them. It sometimes seems odd, coming from a big city in which people barely even look one another in the eye. But in the islands, people say hello when they pass in the street, often from the opposite sides of the road, despite the fact that they do not know the other person. People even say good-morning when then get on a bus in some islands, to an assembled company of people they don’t know. An exchange cannot pass properly until you have.

I found myself standing in a bakery in Roseau in Dominica, waiting my turn to buy a rock cake and one of the island’s fantastic juices this time, for a belated breakfast. I am surrounded by schoolchildren who are on their break. I am about to make my order when all goes quiet. A ‘big man’ walks in. he is covered with gold. Perhaps he is a hood. They all seem to know him, anyway. He walks straight up to the counter and says:

‘Gimme a pattie. Beef.’ He points.

There is a pause, as the lady behind the counter holds his eye. Two seconds, three, four...

‘Good morning’, she says.

It stops him in his tracks. Suddenly everyone is minutely interested in the signs on the wall, anything but the main counter. He says good morning before he asks her more politely.

Oooh what a put down...

Friday, November 13, 2009

World Travel Market 2009 - A Precursor

Whoops. Apologies for the oversight this week. No entry for the Definitive Caribbean blog.

You’ll be glad to know, however, we have been using our time well at World Travel Market, a travel trade fair, which is a travel experience in itself. Literally every country in the world is represented there and has its stand. You can go from South America to the Philippines and then via the Ukraine to Australia without jetlag - well, nearly, as the whole experience is frankly pretty boggling and exhausting to be honest. The building itself seem to work like a psychological vortex, sapping energy in a thoroughly twenty-first century way.

But among all the business, attending has its moments. The Lithuanians had a green dragon this year. I saw him pick some poor unfortunate and follow them until they ran and hid. On the Brazilian stand they were dancing. And in the Caribbean area, well… some time in the afternoon, they did as they always do, have a party.

And of course, to top off the entertainment, there are the baroque activities of the transport system that gets you there (or possibly doesn’t), the Docklands Light Railway. Actually it wasn’t so bad this year.

The purpose – to collect information about what’s new in the Caribbean for the coming season… Look out for our report to come.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jet Lag - Can it work in your favour?

Flights to the Caribbean from Europe leave in the middle of the day. It’s not exactly a normal time to go to sleep, but in my case – as I’ve usually packed late into the night before - I doze off when there’s a moment’s quiet (knowing subconsciously that there’s eight undisturbed hours ahead of me). Generally I’m gone by the time the engines roar on take off. Then there’s a stuttering, low oxygen snooze for several hours. It becomes a sleep of Lethe. The whole of my recent life – the problems, concerns, even the pleasures – is simply elided from memory. The change in perspective, as forward looking as the plane itself, means that I wake up with nothing in mind but the coming Caribbean trip. It’s the way it should be.

And the good is just beginning. With the hour change you touch down at three or four in the afternoon, which in turn means that you clear the airport and arrive at your hotel just in time to see the sunset over the sea horizon. The tree frogs ring in the trees and bushes around you and there is the gentle wash of the waves. After that there’s a drink, and dinner. Understandably you’re exhausted by ten o’clock – it’s two or three in the morning at home – so off you go to bed early.

And then after a full eight hours of sleep you wake at six, in the still of the Caribbean dawn. The early morning is the loveliest time in the islands. It is usually calm and of course it is not too hot. If you take a walk you will see a few people about, perhaps taking a ‘sea bath’ in the calm water or dusting their porch. Life tends to start early in the Caribbean so that the working day is over by the time it becomes too hot. Waking at dawn can last for a few days, if you’re not pushing it at the other end of the day.

It all sounds too good to be true. And of course it is. Payback time comes on the flight home (somehow I never sleep until we begin the descent into land). Then the flight dumps you out on a cold morning, often still in the dark, feeling hideous. It’s a sting in the tail, but gradually the memories take over and soon enough you’re thinking about next year.

Check out the Definitive Guide to getting to the Caribbean.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A few things you probably never knew about Bananas

Bananas plants are not trees. Technically they are actually very large herbs. They grow from a rhizome, on a stem of tightly packed leaves a bit like a cigar. They can grow as tall as five metres or more.

They fruit once, producing a proboscis that droops down, on which grows a ‘bunch’ of bananas.

A bunch of bananas is not the cluster of eight or ten bananas that you buy in a supermarket. These are often called ‘hands’ (well, they do look like so many fingers, I suppose). A bunch is usually about ten hands and can weight 35 kilos.

Bananas themselves grow ‘upside down’. As the proboscis hangs down, so the square black point of the banana, the unattached end, points upwards.

But surely the loveliest fact is the banana’s botanical name. It is called musa sapientum, or ‘the muse of wise men’. You can just imagine an early guru (bananas originate in the East) sitting in the shade of a banana plant, enjoying the fruit and having spontaneous wise thoughts.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Accents Galore - An Amusing Look At Caribbean Language

It’s one of those quiet pleasures of travelling the Caribbean. To hear, in the speech of West Indians, sounds that you are sure originate elsewhere. Well, they might, anyway. Accents are notoriously difficult to pin down. As soon as you think you have caught one within the lovely lilt of West Indian, it evaporates into other sounds. The harder you try the more they seem to get away from you.

It’s only English accents I am referring to, as they are the ones I know. I believe that old Breton can be heard in the French spoken by the natives of St Barths and no doubt regional traces can be heard in the creoles of the Spanish and Dutch islands too. And there must be affects from all the African languages that newly arrived slaves would have spoken.

They say that Shakespearean English is probably more similar to the English spoken in Harlem than to that of current day England. And on a good day I’m certain you can hear Irish in the speech of Montserratians. In fact it’s not that illogical there, in the Caribbean’s ‘Emerald Isle’. Montserrat was known as a place friendly to English-speaking Catholics in the mid 1600s and the telephone book is full of names such as Ryan, Farrel and Daly. But then the same thing happens in Anguilla. Supposedly as a result of a shipwreck. You can be standing on a beach, rum punch in hand - it helps in this endeavour, I suspect - talking to a man and you’ll find he addresses you in, well… Oirish. It’s almost Caribbean craic.

If it is mostly befuddling – Dominica and St Lucia have obvious French tinges - Trinidad has a slightly comic edge. People swear you can hear Welsh laced into Trini speech. But consider this. It’s a fact that people have trouble with a Welsh accent, and all too often they slip into an Indian/Pakistani accent by mistake. With so many Trinis from the Indian subcontinent, who knows which is which.

It has been said for years that Bajan speech is derived from West Country English. And there is a certain logic to this too. In the mid seventeenth century, when Barbados was being populated by the English, Bristol was the most important port in the West of England (Liverpool had not yet come into its own). And Judge Jeffreys had a part to play too, after the Pitchfork Rebellion in 1685 and his Bloody Assizes, in which many West Countrymen were deported. It seems a long time ago, but, sit on a bus in Bridgetown, and close your eyes and...fleetingly...you might almost be in Bath or Okehampton.

It hit home most for a friend of mine when she was visiting Harrison’s Cave, where she heard the guide say – ‘This here is a stalagtoite. And this, is a stalagmoite….’ She could, she decided, have been in Cheddar Gorge.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review of Jamaica Farewell by Morris Cargill (1978, Barricade Books, 1995)

Jamaica Farewell is an exceptionally touching memoir of a man in the process of leaving an island to which he belongs. It was the 1970s, politically a difficult time around the Caribbean, and many of the wealthy islanders were leaving because they saw no future there. For Cargill the situation was even more poignant because he was writing commentaries in the newspaper about the situation and it was getting him in trouble. Eventually he felt he had to go. This is his tribute to an island that he so obviously loves.

His writing is clear and direct, so it is generally easy to read. At the same time it is strongly opinionated – as the man himself obviously was. His columns in the Jamaica Gleaner were testament to that. But given that the pleasure of reading has a good deal to do with enjoyment too, it is important that it is shot through with generous good humour. It starts with – and then is peppered with throughout - the funny stories of happenstance and eccentricity that seem to occur more in Jamaica than anywhere else. Cargill is also a sharp observer, whether it be the curious lilt of Jamaican language or the learning behaviour of bananaquits (he sees them learning to hover like hummingbirds to get at nectar).

Viewed from the perspective of the early 21st Century, Jamaica Farewell can seem paternalistic, even patronising, but it doesn’t take long for the true spirit of the man to come through. Actually Cargill was a rebel and a radical in his day. He scandalised white Jamaican society by adopting a black child and he introduced radical new worker conditions on his plantation. And he was hard-hitting when he wanted to be, relentlessly pursuing causes in which he believed. He was known in the 1970s as one of the scourges of the Manley government for his columns in the Gleaner. At times you can feel the columnist warming to his theme in Jamaica Farewell, whether it be drugs or the remorseless purgatives in Victorian English medicine. Occasionally they jar slightly in the writing – perhaps because he knows he is being contentious – but mostly they are seamless and of course they often lighten the book with obvious good humour.

The key emotions of the memoir however are eternal. It is clear to feel the man’s love for a country which he can see going to hell in a handcart (then a very popular streetside vending platform in Jamaica) – shortages, election fraud and for him personally threats of prosecution for being anti-government in his writings. He has done what he can and so he decides to leave – for an uncertain future in New York.

Most of us are visitors to the Caribbean. While we are stunned by the beauty of the islands – and Jamaica is among the most beautiful - and we are usually impressed by the people, we only see the surface. Jamaica Farewell is very well written and an immensely touching book that will illustrate the attachment of West Indians to their islands.

Often it turns out to be an unavoidable bond. Two years after leaving, Morris Cargill returned, living out the rest of his life there.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Retractabelt Limbo - Arrivals in Nassau

Airports are mostly pretty faceless, sterile places, despite what Alain de Botton (recently writer in residence at Terminal 5) would have us believe. The terminals are generally pretty ugly and people are usually tired, children fractious and suitcases (mine anyway) always seem to be last out onto the carousel. I find I just want to get through them as quickly as possible.

Which makes it all the more delightful when a moment arises - something surprising, ironic, illogical or comic. One happened to me recently in Nassau in the Bahamas (after the BA flight out of Terminal 5 as it happens). It didn’t start well, but by the end I was spellbound in bemused fascination, not knowing whether to squirm and join in or run for it.

Heading for the Arrivals Hall I passed the string band – traditional instruments, tropical shirts and straw hats – and I noticed a small kerfuffle in the corner of my eye. A woman, from a previous flight by the look of it, was clearly so taken by this reception committee that she simply had to dance. The band were happy enough to play along. And the pirate compere, who was swashbuckling around, engaging new arrivals in the mind-blowing excitement of being in the Bahamas, giving out brochures and advice, was loving it. I guess it brightened up his day no end.

I managed to sidle by into the main Immigration hall, and into the maze of retractabelts that keep you going back and forth, left and right, covering about two hundred yards in a building just twenty yards across. Presumably a bored official sets them up to be as long as possible, despite there being little chance of a sudden influx of a thousand desperate passengers who need to be kept in order. But I had this inkling that trouble was about to follow me.

Things were momentarily uneventful … left twenty yards… right twenty yards… left twenty yards… oh bollocks, I can’t be bothered with this... I just removed the belts from their stands and rehooked them and made my way up to the yellow line that way. I joined the five couples standing there patiently.

Moments later there was a slip sliding behind me and a slightly monotone hum. Along with the others I looked around. And couldn’t help but smile. The dancing woman was doing a limbo under the retractabelt tapes, all six of them, and was gradually making her way up to the yellow line. Her mother (I suspect) tried one, thought better of it, and then went around the long way, back and forth, encouraging her on at each straight.

They joined the Immigration behind me, puffed but still humming the tune. Don’t Stop the Carnival, I think it was… There was an engaging rebelliousness about them, but soon came a moment of panic. Was she about to ask me to dance? Luckily her mum chipped in. They were off to the Atlantis. I knew the one, the huge theme park hotel on Paradise Island - yes, the waterslide passes through the shark lagoon. Yikes, I thought, I wonder if they’ll survive (the sharks, I mean).

Not me. I’ve always thought the best of the Bahamas was the out islands and so I was headed further afield as soon as I got through the Immigration queue. Actually I was off to kayak along the Exumas. But that’s another story...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Caribbean Citrus Fruit - Shaddock, Tangor, Ortanique

As you’d expect, there are many different types of citrus fruit in the Caribbean. You’ll see them in colourful piles in the markets - limes, lemons, oranges (or ‘greens’ as some of them ought to be known) and grapefruits. And you can have fun picking and crushing their leaves. They release an oily but tangy citrus smell.

Ugli Fruit - Courtesy of Cooking by the Seat of my PantsBut in Jamaica you will find other citrus fruits besides these, and they have their own idiosyncratic names. The shaddock, for instance, which is closely related to the grapefruit. Elsewhere it is known as the pomelo, but here it took this name from the Seventeenth Century English ship’s captain that introduced it to the island. And the tangor, as it is known in the rest of the world, a hybrid of the tangerine and a sweet orange. This name is just so much prosaic nonsense to the Jamiacans. For them it is an ortanique, part orange and part tangerine finished off with the -ique of unique.

And finally there is the delightfully named ugli fruit, which is exactly what its name says it is, a squat fruit with a nobbled and warty skin. It is a hybrid of a grapefruit, the orange and a tangerine. And just to prove the expression - beauty really is only skin deep in this case – its flesh is not ugly at all, but juicy and pleasant.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Caribbean Dominos - A Game of Slap and Slide!

Dominos is an all-Caribbean game, played from Cayman round to Curaçao, and particularly via Cuba, where even El Jefe, Fidel Castro, was known to be partial to a game.

You will see it in action in bars around the islands, at taxi stands and under trees on afternoons of leisure.

Actually, more accurately, you will hear it being played – West Indian dominoes is played with customary Caribbean demonstrativeness. A ‘card’ as it is called in Barbados, is not laid down on the game table. Most of the time it is slapped down and then slid into place.

It looks so simple...and yet...there is far more strategizing than you would ever imagine, and most importantly there is also an active mind at work. Even players clearly the worse for wear - or is that the worse for beer? - will be counting off the dominoes that have already been used and finessing the ones that remain, judging who might be holding them.

A word of warning, then. Do not ever, ever, take a West Indian on at dominos for money. Regular players just beat you every time.

Interested in the game rules? Have a look at John McLeod's Rules of Domino games: Jamaican and Caribbean Dominoes.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Irony in the Islands - Caribbean Maps Come Alive

It’s an eccentric view, to be sure, but I have often imagined the Caribbean islands as an animal skeleton. It sits, looking left, perched at Jamaica, its body Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and its head and neck, Cuba, stretching out towards Mexico. Balanced by its tail, the many island vertebrae of the Eastern Caribbean, the western end of Cuba might be about to peck Cancun.

I wonder what animal it might be. It could be an iguana perhaps, or a tree-dwelling cat. But then its tail is prehensile - Trinidad is embedded, holding firm onto Venezuela in South America – so perhaps it is a tree porcupine or a pangolin – though it looks too ready to leap. It might even be a chameleon or a dinosaur. The Bahamas, which admittedly stand ceremonious on the fact that they are not actually part of the Caribbean, do look like one of those brightly coloured fan-shaped backplates.

Individual islands have their ironies too. Jamaica looks like a turtle, languishing calmly in the sea, momentarily surfacing to breathe – and it’s an image about as inappropriate as it is possible to be for the frenetic, ever-lively Jamaicans. Guadeloupe is well known as a butterfly (and there are nautical confusions there too), but its compatriot Martinique looks more like a flea in mid-leap. Or is that a skiing glove? And St Kitts and Nevis, in true form, are like bat and ball. All it would take is for St Kitts to pivot around its handle and it would knock Nevis into the mid-Atlantic.

But my favourite image is that of Cuba, which from the perspective of the rest of the Caribbean looks like an alligator hovering over them, threatening. It’s true, Cuba could be scary – as soon as it opens up fully it will threaten to swallow their livelihood by taking all their tourism. With one switch of its tail it could descend on them and gobble them all up. But then step back a bit and you will see the incisor of Florida hanging over Cuba, poised to chomp onto the Yucatan and bite it in half. And suddenly Cuba looks like a wriggling tiddler. And so it has been for the past 50 years. Thing is, looking at the map, Cuba might just manage to get away.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Harum Scarum - Caribbean Flight Frights

As a group of islands, you’d expect the Caribbean to have some, well... ‘sporting’ landing strips. And so it turns out. There are short runways, runways with cross-winds, runways with cliffs at either end, and runways that inconveniently have a hill in the way, just where you’d want the pilot to line up to land.

We have tested them all and have put together a roll of honour – the Caribbean’s top three scariest landings! And here they are. Enjoy...

1 St Maarten
There’s a rather short approach to this runway, so the beach-goers get a bit of a shock from time to time.

2 St Barths
You worry that as it comes in to land the plane will take the hat of the car drivers on the road below.

3 Culebra, off Puerto Rico
And yes, there’s a hill just where you want the pilot to line up here, so you swing around the hillside.

And before you go, if you would like to read a story about landing on Saba, a bright green pimple of an island whose airstrip is shorter than any self-respecting aircraft carrier, then have a look at Landing on Saba - Not Something for the Sane! which is the fourth video in the above playlist.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Firefly - Light Emiting Diode or Lights Emits Dies

Of all the weird and wonderful instances of insect behaviour found around the Caribbean – and there are ‘Hercules’ beetles six inches long in Dominica and ancient insects millions of years old caught in amber in the Dominican Republic – one of the loveliest and most distinctive is the firefly. To see one, meandering across your bedroom at night, or flickering in the garden, is one of those moments that give a feeling of real privilege.

Officially the firefly belongs to the family lamprydae, but of course it takes its common name from its characteristic of flashing at night. Which is of course a mating display. Males fly around flashing, in the hope of impressing a female on a nearby leaf. And if she likes the quality of the flash – apparently some are sexier than others - then she will reply with a responsive flash after a specific time period.

Generally Fireflies like dank, forested areas, particularly around streams and in gullies for instance (Fern Gully leading out of Ocho Rios in Jamaica used to have hundreds, but the petrol fumes have done for them now apparently). Equally they can be seen in gardens (near ponds and rivers). I was told once that they have just twenty minutes of ‘flash’, after which, it was said, they die. A high risk strategy, then.

Put two fireflies together and they will often flash in time. There are places in the world (though I have not heard of one in the Caribbean itself) where whole riverbanks of trees flash in time – on for a second, off for a second, on for a second, off. In the Caribbean you will have to be happy to see them individually. And, hopefully for them, in flash-induced pairs.

Monday, August 17, 2009

How to Eat an Orange - Markets in Santo Domingo

West Indians certainly do sales with aplomb. Market stalls are as carefully presented as art galleries. You might see a range of colour co-ordinated cigarette packets, a pyramid of avocados or a clutch of umbrellas all carefully leaning against one another so as not to fall down.

And if the set is worthy of a stage, then there is certainly drama and the ‘lyric’, with a constant backchat and sales patter, to bamboozle you into buying. Coconut salesmen call and shout then chop coconuts for you with a flourish of their machete and when you buy a snow cone in Jamaica you can expect the third degree – all to get a cup of crushed ice flavoured with some concentrate to give it taste.

But in the Dominican Republic they have what must be the most stylish way of... well, peeling an orange. It is a small metal machine. You fix the orange into a clamp and then start to wind – all with a theatrical flourish of course – and a sharp scoop then begins to cut into the peel, shedding the orange (or often green) skin right down to the bottom layer of pith, leaving a neat serrated pattern of rings. Chop the orange in half and you can scrape the flesh of the orange out with your front teeth. Perfect.

Returning to my favourite orange seller in Santo Domingo not long ago, I found that he had upgraded. Not the same at all, I thought. The old machine, the one he wound with a flourish, had been forsaken and instead there was a battery driven one, with a motor in the spiral shape of a huge inner ear. But hey, he executed it all with the same dexterity and drama. And the orange was as juicy and sweet as ever before.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How to Eat a Mango - Or Survive The Guadarun!

Plenty of types of fruit can be a bit messy to eat, but none surely tops a mango, for which frankly you need a bib? Or possibly swimming trunks. I met a person who jokingly said that they are best eaten in the bath. Another went as far as to say they were best in the sea. Apparently the salt of the water on your hands improves the flavour, complementing the sweetness of the mango.

In addition to being the messiest fruit, mangoes are surely also the most exotic. They are impossibly sweet when they are ripe, and their satin skin has the most amazing and inviting range of colours. From green (even then they can also be used, in chutneys, for instance) they turn yellow and orange, then a hundred shades of blushing red. Some take on an outrageous, luscious pink. There are scores of varieties. The most popular ones around the Caribbean are the Alphonso, Julie and the Number 11. It’s always worth getting hold of one. In terms of taste they are in a different league from anything you can buy in a supermarket at home.

It must have been the God of contrariness that designed that stone, which is shaped like a cuttlefish skeleton. And those filaments, which stick in your teeth, leaving you clicking for the rest of the day trying to get rid of them. But once you become a devotee you take these things in your stride. Actually, opening a mango, sectioning half the flesh within its skin and turning it inside out like a hedgehog is quite fun, particularly if there are children around.

All of which leads, in a roundabout way, to my personal favourite mango-eating moment. It was in Guadeloupe, at the very end of the Guadarun, a 150km staged running race that takes place on five islands around the archipelago over six days. You run on beaches, brutal burnt rocky terrain and over the not inconsiderable mountains (one stage resulted in a ‘personal worst’ marathon time of eight hours 32 minutes, but then there was 9000 feet of climbing). All in the tropical heat of course.

The final stretch of the race runs along the cliffs of the eastern edge of Grande-Terre (it’s the easterly of the two islands, see an explanation of Guadeloupean geographical oddities). After 30 kilometres running in the sun – it was so hot that even the clouds had evaporated - the course turned down into a cove, coming to a finish on a beach. Here I was handed a vast pink and red mango and a knife. Picture then, an exhausted ultra runner now ecstatic - knowing that the challenge is now defeated - sitting in a rockpool up to his waist, mango juice dripping down his chin. Never has a mango tasted so good. Nor been as messy.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Landing on Saba - Not something for the sane!

I am sitting on a veranda in St Maarten shooting the breeze, after a formal interview, with an old resident of the island. I mention my upcoming visit to Saba (my first, back in 1989). Saba is one of the other Dutch Windwards. It stands on the sea horizon somewhere just out of sight. Jokingly, I express concern about the landing.

Just to let you know some key facts - at 400 metres the airstrip is extremely short, it sits on the only (nearly) flat bit of land on the island – it’s still on a slope, though - on a promontory with a 150ft drop at one end and a 350 ft drop at the other. You don’t want to mis-time it, anyway. As you’ll see in the clip below there can be cross-winds too. They make you want to lean forward and tap the pilot on the shoulder and say –

‘Excuse me, I just think you ought to know, the runway’s over there.’

Sure, they have special STOL aircraft (Short Take Off and Landing), usually Twin Otters, which anyway are fantastically manoeuvrable, and the pilots have to retrain every ten minutes – and you know they want to crash even less than you do – all that bureaucracy... But still it’s a nervous moment, landing on a strip shorter than most self-respecting aircraft carriers.

Eventually the conversation was concluded by my wizened interviewee, in a voice that was calm, if slightly dead-pan, no lugubrious... or was that apocalyptic?

‘Doan worry, man,’ he intones. ‘They only use half the runway...’

Unfortunately, when I landed, they decided to use the second half of the runway...

When you’re dangling in mid air, seemingly on a piece of string tweaked by a malevolent air sprite, runways seem deceptively small. My mind shuffles quickly – fine, there’s the island, but where the actual landing strip? Hold on, he can’t mean that postage stamp, surely? Oh, he does? Well, you’re coming in far too steep, mate – manoeuvrability maybe, but you’re going to overshoot. At least he is pointing along the runway, so the cross-winds aren’t too bad. But then a blast buffets us from the side and we lurch left. He brings it back on line admirably quickly, but still he is aiming too far down the strip. I am sure of it.

By now he is gliding. We slide high over the cliff at the start of the runway, past the windsock, then 100 yards later past the terminal building with its diminutive fire engine. Eventually we touch down half way along the landing strip. Alarms beep all over the place. The woman next to me in Row One put her face in her hands and her husband goes into rictus, bolt upright with an electrified expression. And then there is something as close to panic as I have seen in a pilot. His faces furrows in concentration. He proceeds with his drills, putting on reverse thrust and the brakes at the same time. The plane roars, strains and judders under the load.

Suddenly a tyre bursts, and we begin to bounce sideways as well, slewing right. Finally we come to a halt. The pilot takes in a deep breath... And lets it out again... Sanguine feller. Later, my joke ran that when you opened the door you closed it again... having decided to get out the other side of the plane because of the 400 foot drop with no steps, but actually it wasn’t quite that bad. We have come to a halt, at forty-five degrees to the runway, with about fifteen yards to spare. That’s maximum runway utilization, but not much room for comfort. We walked to the terminal building wobbly legged. Except the man next to me, who is still stiff and moving like a mummy.

Welcome to Saba. Oh, I nearly forgot. What’s Saba actually like? Well it’s great. Odd but intriguing to visit. Once you’ve got there that is...

If you’re not up for the adventure, you can actually go by boat nowadays. Meanwhile, enjoy the video clip of a landing at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Top 6 Plants From The Caribbean, by James Henderson

Botanical gardens in the Caribbean are always a pleasure to visit. Tropical plants – particularly if you do not know them - are endlessly exotic. They are often incredibly brightly-coloured. Their flowers are weird and wonderful - some look more like sculptures than anything natural. Orchids are extraordinary. And who would ever design a flower like the lobster claw or the torch ginger? They might almost bite you.

There is a botanical garden in nearly every island, and in them nearly every plant has a story. I’d always recommend taking a guide when visiting them and when hiking (while elsewhere I am not necessarily convinced about guides). But here they bring the place alive with all the stories. These can be to do with the origins of the plants, where they came from and how they got to the Caribbean (see our recent newsletter article about Captain Bligh and the Plant Hunters), or how they grow. Also, what the plants are used for – many are used for medicinal purposes as well as for decoration and for food.

As you walk the around the garden a guide will crush leaves to reveal the smell (this is particularly good on citrus trees, but also on others such as clove and camphor) or they will point out oddities – you can guess what the red film of the lipstick palm looks as though it might be used for, but what about the sandbox tree – in fact it takes its name from its pods, which were once used for containing blotting sand (to dry ink on the page).

Here are few of my favourite Caribbean oddities, discovered in various botanical gardens over the years -

Quinine, used in the treatment of malaria, comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, which grows best in cloudforest - at high elevations.

The periwinkle, a pretty pink flower on an unassuming green bush, has been used in the treatment of cancer.

Pimento, a spice that grows particularly well in Jamaica, is also called allspice (because it tastes like so many other spices combined – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg for instance). The spice comes from the berries and the wood is used to flavor jerk food when cooking. Allspice can even be used to cure and dye leather.

What fruit would a cannonball tree give up? You’ve guessed it, a massive, woody ball. Interestingly this huge tree has very delicate flowers, which open at night and fall to the ground with the light of dawn.

Mahogany tree pods explode, releasing a spray of whirligig seeds (a bit like a sycamore).

In Haiti, one type of hibiscus is known as Choublac (literally ‘shoe-black’). In years past in this extremely poor country it was used to provide an inky black juice that could be used as a replacement shoe polish.

For more information see the Definitive Guide to Caribbean Gardens and Flowers.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Coconut milk - How to eat a coconut

We left you all hanging a month ago...as I handed back a coconut to the vendor...with a promise of more to come.

This time, with a mighty chop of his machete, he split the coconut right down the middle, and tore it into two with his hands. And then, with another slightly more delicate cut he sliced off a fan-shaped section of shell. After that he handed all the bits back to me.

This is the fun part of drinking a coconut. You use the small section of shell to scrape off the lining on the inside of the nut. This changes as the coconut ages. It starts off a thin film of jelly on the interior of the shell, but gradually as the liquid in the coconut dries out this hardens into a white flesh, first springy and then eventually into dry coconut – the sort used in confectionery or roasted to make coconut chips.

It was the reason that I had asked for a nut that was not too young. The lining on this nut was a quarter of an inch thick and it was just becoming firm. The fan-shaped slice slid under the layer of flesh perfectly, bringing it up in rinds as slippery and uncontrollable as small white fish. Eventually I managed to stuff them into my mouth.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Lignum Vitae - Wood of Life, Truncheon or Natural Viagra?

Any tree with the name lignum vitae - translated it means ‘the wood of life’ – is surely worth a nod of respect. But this is one to doff your cap to. Lignum vitae takes the word hardwood to a new level. It is a very hard wood indeed, 4500 on the Janka Scale of Hardness no less, according to Wikipedia (the next closest, Brazilian ebony, comes in at 3692 and teak gets a paltry 2330). Unsurprisingly lignum vitae is also known as ironwood.

A native of tropical America, it grows on most of the large Caribbean islands. It has been adopted by the Jamaicans for their national flower – for what turns out to be a monster of a tree, it has a very delicate purple, five-petalled bloom. But here’s an example of how hard it is. Lignum vitae wood has been used as replacement ball bearings, even as an axle. It is quite resinous and so it lubricates itself, meaning that it works well in a marine environment, for pulleys and in working parts.

In the story of how Richard Lupinacci of The Hermitage came to Nevis in the 1960s, he talks of fighting his way through overgrowth to the old plantation house that turned out to be nearly 300 years old. The builder took a hammer and knocked the frame of the building and said - ‘Ah, lignum vitae, lignum vitae…’ Doubtless if it had been any other type of wood it would have been eaten by termites and fallen down long before.

Lignum vitae is also exceptionally heavy. And so it was used around the Caribbean for ballast in ships. Elsewhere it has been used for cricket bails and for British police truncheons. And there is another disarming quality to it too. The wood of lignum vitae is so heavy that it actually sinks in water (doubtless, like ice, it sinks in jack-iron too, see the article below).

For all of this, the name ‘wood of life’ apparently derives from the tree’s medicinal qualities rather than any physical prowess. The resin has been used for many years, in the treatment of arthritis and other ailments. At one stage it was thought to work both a contraceptive and a treatment for syphilis – and you can imagine, the naughtier calypsonians have had some fun with the idea of the strongest wood around. This stuff is so strong you can brew tea from the wood shavings. By gum, that’s probably harder even than Yorkshire Tea…

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Rum Old Ferry Ride

Of all the ferries you will encounter in the Caribbean, the most endearing one must be the twice-weekly link between Union Island to Carriacou in the Grenadines. It is a short hop, just a few miles, between two very small islands and so a small boat is appropriate. It is, or was, anyway, a small sailing boat with an engine – though last time I took it I had to help rig the sail. It’s a pleasant enough crossing - people come thousands of miles to sail in these waters for their holidays.

But it’s the unexpected things that happen that make travel in the Caribbean such fun. After I had helped to rig the jib (the sail at the front, anyway), the helmsman shuffled around the floor of the boat and pulled out a white plastic two-litre bottle. He thrust it at me.

‘Here, man, try a bit of the jack.’

I peered through the open neck of the bottle. Swilling around in the bottom was a viscous-looking liquid, slightly coloured, yellowish, but I couldn’t tell if that was the liquid or the suspension of particles that were bobbing around in it. There was organic matter in there too, small strips of greenery, all lined up like the sea grass on a current. I obviously looked doubtful.

‘It jack-iron man, the strongest rum you can get.’

It is true, jack iron is exceptionally strong rum, over 150 per cent proof. This particular (obviously unnamed) brand apparently didn’t come from Carriacou, where no jack iron was being produced at the time (officially anyway). Instead it came from Trinidad, where a big distillery has a small output. And yes, it was incredibly strong. It seemed to burn and then evaporate immediately, like some acid will ‘o the wisp.

But the most extraordinary thing about jack-iron is not its strength, rather the fact that ice sinks in it. I have seen it happen – it was on another occasion, this, there wasn’t much chance of the helmsman finding a coolbox on the floor too. Not that you’d want to drink a whole glass of jack-iron, but our host filled one up and then dropped two ice cubes into it. Instead of bobbing back to the surface and clinking against one another, they carried on to the bottom of the glass and swam around there for a few seconds before becoming still. Weird.

If anyone knows why ice sinks in jack-iron, please let us know why.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review of The Blue Hour by Lilian Pizzichini (Bloomsbury)

The prospect of writing even a review of a biography for Jean Rhys is slightly scary. She wrote formidably depressing books, including a particularly lugubrious – if admirably clever - take on the Caribbean, Wide Sargasso Sea (she took the character of the mad creole woman, Rochester’s first wife, in the attic in Jane Eyre and told her story). And Rhys was well known as difficult person in real life. It is compelling material however. There is no doubt that for all her faults, Rhys is one of the leading lights of twentieth century writing in English.
Lilian Pizzichini’s new biography is sharply written and readable. It certainly doesn’t dispel any of Rhys’s reputation as a difficult person, but The Blue Hour is sympathetic in that it tries to understand why Rhys was how she was and it certainly does give an insight for the reader into her behaviour.

The book begins with Rhys’s return to Dominica as an established writer in 1936, using it as a springboard to describe her upbringing on the island and to start a generally chronological narrative. The point for Pizzichini is clear from the beginning, though. The facts of life in Dominica are merely stepping stones to help reveal the developing psychology of her subject. From the beginning she lays the ground out of which Rhys’s difficult character grows, presenting a logical train of events that makes her later actions and her bitterness the more inevitable.
Even before the author is a teenager, disappointment and happiness roll around in her like the proverbial cannon - her mother doesn’t love her, the island spirits terrify her, there is her father whom she idealises, but he is quickly followed by her wilful tantrums. There is early alienation, something that was to become a theme of her life. Dominican society was strict and her family was not quite respectable. And of course there were the obvious black and white issues too. And then there were men – abuse at the hands of a 70-year old and her early but complex forays into the power struggle between man and woman – as she saw it at least.
Rhys – actually born Ella Gwendoline Rhys Williams – was to become a classic outsider. It was true of almost every aspect of her life, but particularly because of her Caribbean heritage in a place that she couldn’t be a part of - one that she eventually hated – England.
Lilian Pizzichini has set herself the task of presenting ‘…the facts of Rhys’s life in such a way that the reader is left with an impression of what it was like to have lived such a life.’ And she does it well, and evocatively, though often imaginatively (because she simply cannot have known Rhys’s thoughts for sure). She has done considerable research into Rhys’s opinions though, and she then puts these into Rhys’s head, using indirect free speech, so that we see them from the inside. Additionally, much of Rhys’s writing, if not auto-biographical, was taken from life, so Pizzichini is able to use a number of the passages from her novels to describe Rhys’s actual life.
And there’s no doubt that Rhys led an extraordinary life. She went to England to complete her education and found that she hated it. She took to the fringes of Edwardian life – she couldn’t bear to commit to the core of its respectability – and became a chorus girl and dancer. This she was fascinated by and observed acutely, but of course she could not belong. She took lovers and was a prostitute in a manner of speaking. She married a Belgian crook and occasional spy and moved to Paris and Vienna. She knew some of the leading literary figures of the day. She became the lover of Ford Madox Ford (inevitably in a complicated ménage à trois with his long time lover Stella Bowen). Rhys lived life on the edge in so many ways.
Rhys had disappointments that would deeply have affected a normal person too - her baby boy died of pneumonia aged three weeks, and there were rejections by lovers – but they only served to increase her alienation and dissatisfaction. There was short-lived critical recognition around the Second World War - the critics acknowledged her talent as a writer, though her world view was simply too depressing for the time. Eventually she descended into drunkenness and sometimes violence, given to disputes with her neighbours and anti-English rants.
As the reader you really get to a sense of how complex and self-destructive she was when you come to sentences like this - ‘…she savoured the sweet bitterness of having been abandoned by so many loved ones.’ And ‘She always behaved badly when someone was nice to her because she had to pre-empt their inevitable abandonment of her.’
For all of this Rhys was also a charismatic and attractive figure. And lucky, too. She found many people who were resolutely kind to her and loyal. Of course she was innovative in her writing as well, though inevitably success was too long in coming.
So, did Dominica contribute to her character? She wrote about the island, and about colonial life. It was her one proper home, she said, though of course when she returned in 1936 she hated it. She fell out with the people there and saw her childhood dreams smashed to boot. But in a different way it pervaded the last years of her life – through her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea and in a strange way, the story of this book strikes a subliminally positive note in a substantial part of Pizzichini’s narrative. It represents a well of latent success that simply has to spring forth and force aside the author’s unease with herself. The book stayed with Rhys for twenty or thirty years, bubbling under in her in tandem with her madness. It survived the burning of an early draft, but finally it came out in 1966 and she received the acclaim that was hers.
Generally The Blue Hour is a successful evocation of the woman. The impressions we get of being Jean Rhys are largely convincing and it is a compelling enough story to want to keep reading. Like Rhys’s novels it is frustrating, but that is less to do with the biographer than the material. It’s just hard to believe that someone, even the most sensitive of writers, could be so perverse and destructive to those around her -
‘… the person who was most against her was herself’.

The Blue Hour by Lilian Pizzichini is published by Bloomsbury. For more information, see www.Bloomsbury.com. For more information about Dominica, see the Definitive Caribbean Guide to Dominica.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Karst in the Caribbean - Cockpit Country

Karst is one of the Caribbean’s oddest geological features, a pattern of limestone that appears in several of the Greater Antilles and which has become a sight in its own right.

The rock (which takes its name from the Krs area of the former Yugoslavia) has been uplifted by tectonic movement and exposed to erosion. Any split in the rock has been exploited by the tropical rains, which have rushed through, carving and cutting holes, hollowing out caves and gradually dissolving the rock (limestone is soluble in acid). In places it has eroded in fairly regular patterns, leaving an extremely weird landscape. In Jamaica’s case, the Cockpit Country is like a massive, shaggy green eggbox that stretches for miles and miles.

The most famous sections of karst are the Viñales area of western Cuba, where the vertical walled outcrops marooned in the fertile plains are known as mogotes, and in the Dominican Republic, where there is a whole range of furry green lumps appear in the Los Haitises National Park in the north of the country. From above, the park looks like a very difficult green jigsaw. Similarly, in Puerto Rico there is a range eroded into the limestone plateau in the north of the island.

But the Cockpit Country is the most extensive of all. A flight from Montego Bay to Kingston flies above it, a sudden belt of uninterrupted and uninhabited green in an otherwise extremely populous country. In places the formations are as regular as an egg carton. It’s just that the indentations are 300 feet high and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

The name Cockpit comes from a different assessment of their shape – the slopes of the peaks are steeply angled, creating pits between them which are just the shape of the auditorium for fighting cocks (a sport which doesn’t really exist in Jamaica any more, though it can still just be seen in some of the other islands).

Interestingly the Cockpit Country has other names too. The area was used by the Maroons (early runaways) when they were holding out against the British colonialists in the early 1700s. It was easy ambush country. In fact so dangerous that it was known as ‘the Land of the Look-Behind’- soldiers reputedly rode sitting back to back on horseback in order to defend themselves – and simply, chillingly ‘You no send, me no come’.

To get an idea of what the Cockpit Country looked like on a terrain map of Jamaica, see Google Maps.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Coconut milk - How to husk a coconut

It was the second time in a couple of days – and the second time in five entries on this blog as it happens – that I was greeted by a man brandishing a machete. There was nothing wrong with this...

The machete is one of the twin tools of the Caribbean, along with the umbrella. Every farmer needs one, to cut back the rampant growth. It’s just that it’s still a little unexpected when you’re in the street.

In this case it was needed to despatch a coconut. The man was standing next to an ice-cream trolley full of them.

‘Chop me a nut, sir!’ I said. ‘Not too young.’

And he delved into the trolley and pulled out a good looking yellow coconut.

It was at this point he whipped out his machete. He bounced the coconut in one hand, turning it until he got just the right angle. And then THWACK! He sliced off the top of the shell. It took him four or five strokes to slice it down to the right point and then he chopped slightly more gently, shaving chips off and preventing the coconut water splashing out when he broke through. He left a hole into the inside of the nut about an inch across, rimmed the white flesh of the coconut. At this point he handed it over.

It’s a messy procedure, drinking from a coconut. Not as messy as eating a mango (for which you are probably best to get into a bath, frankly, or the sea), but it is complicated. You have to squash the shell against your nose in order to get your mouth into position - and anyway the liquid always seems to find its way down your shirt. No worry, though. Coconut water is refreshing and satisfying in the heat and a nut can contain about half a pint so there is plenty there.

But there’s more to a coconut. I handed it back – it’s part of the service - and the salesman took out his machete again...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jamaican Jerk - Take 2

You may remember my trip down memory lane about a month ago where I mused on the delights of Jamaican Jerk centres. Well, the marinade thickens. An email just landed on the desk from the Jamaica Tourist Authority with a press release introducing their ‘Jerk Trail - Jamaica's newest and spiciest!’ It talk about a culinary trail that you can follow as you make your way around the Island, with stop-offs at the places that offer the finest jerk.

The trail currently features eleven Jerk Centres, but I expect the list will expand … certainly Scotchie's in Montego Bay needs to be included! I’ve whiled away many an hour in there, soothing a sore tongue and gums (enflamed by hot pepper sauce) with a Red Stripe… Anyway, see below for some further details…

Supreme Jerk Centre, Green Island, Hanover
Located on the north-western tip of the island, Hanover is well known for agriculture, and sees the production of yams, sugar cane and breadfruit as well as ginger and pimento, some of the spices needed for the jerk marinade. Also it is celebrated for breeds of cattle, pigs and goats.

Border Jerk Centre, Ramble, Hanover

Ultimate Jerk Centre, Discovery Bay
Located on Jamaica's north coast, the huge Discovery Bay was originally named Puerto Seco (Dry Harbour) by Christopher Columbus. It is the site of the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory, operated by the University of the West Indies, which was founded in 1965. The lab has hosted researchers from around the world focusing on coral reef biology and tropical coastal processes.

Scotchie's, Greenwich Park, Ocho Rios
Ocho Ríos (also known by the nickname Ochie), Spanish for Eight Rivers, is a town on the northern coast. It is a popular tourist destination, well known for scuba diving and other watersports.

Ocho Rios Jerk Centre

Lyming at Walkerswood, St. Ann's
Walkerswood is a small community in Ocho Rios, St Ann's which produces the popular Walkerswood Jerk Sauce. Today if you travel beyond Fern Gully, you'll see this small community. The efforts of this village can be found island-wide.

G&B Jerk Centre, Victoria Road, Kingston
Set on the southern shore, Kingston is the capital of Jamaica. It is visited primarily by business travellers, but it is the cultural heart of the island too. Take the time to visit the city … and its jerk centres.

Pon Di Corner Jerk Centre, Black Hill District, Port Antonio
As you would expect in Portland, the original home of the maroons, capital Port Antonio has several jerk centres. It lies on the north-eastern coast of Jamaica, about 60 miles (100 km) from the Capital, Kingston.

Blueberry Hill Jerk Centre, Port Antonio

Unique Jerk Centre, Hope Bay, Port Antonio

Boston Jerk, Boston Bay, Portland (finally!)
Boston Bay is known now as the home of Jerk. Located on Jamaica's north-eastern coast, it is rural and well known for its pretty beaches. The road is lined with Jerk Centres and you will see the meats being grilled in pits in the ground. Jerked foods are made with Jamaican jerk spices.

For some help with your trip through the jerk centres of Jamaica, get in touch with Rachel at Glamour Tours. If you fancy a read of my last trip to one in Boston Bay…check out Boston Bay is full of Jerks, Maroons and Buccaneers.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Kick ‘em Jenny - an active volcano in the Grenadines

Would you like to be called Kick ‘em Jenny ? It doesn’t sound exactly like a compliment... But this is no bronco, or any angry young woman for that matter. Kick ‘em Jenny is a stretch of rough water to the north of Grenada, in the Grenadines.

The reason for the name is that Kick ‘em Jenny is a submarine volcano. It rises over 4000 from the sea bed and comes to within about 600 feet of the surface of the sea. And the reason for the rough water is that the Atlantic currents stack up against this natural barrier, creating into an unpleasant swell on the surface. The name is reckoned to derive from the French /‘Caye qui me gêne’/, which means ‘island that disturbs me’, but frankly Kick ‘em Jenny is equally expressive. Certainly it can
feel like that it in a boat. In fact yacht companies ask you not to go there.

Like so many of the Caribbean volcanoes, Kick ‘em Jenny is relatively active and it often features on the seismic data collected in the area. But people notice it too. Pilots report seeing activity when flying over the area – bubbles and submarine clouds of debris. Grumbling noises are also occasionally heard on land nearby.

The most recent major eruption was in 1939, when ash and steam broke the surface of the sea, spewing and steaming and setting off tsunamis in the area. Since then there have been a dozen significant eruptions, most recently in 2001. According to the vulcanologists, in the years to come another Grenadine may eventually appear.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Bahamas by Mailboat...

Few people who visit the Bahamas ever hear of Potter’s Cay, though many pass within a few yards of it each time that they are whisked off Paradise Island in one of those ridiculous white stretch limos that are so popular in Nassau. Where Paradise Island is fabricated Caribbean perfection -- massive casino, glitz and high-rise hotels -- Potter’s Cay is its alter-ego, a shabby looking area of working docks beneath the bridge.

Potter’s Quay is the main mail-boat dock that links the central Bahamian island of New Providence, where the capital Nassau is situated, to all the Out Islands, the literally hundreds of islands, ribbons of rock and sandbars spread over 100,000 square miles of the spectacularly blue Bahamian sea. After Nassau it is a reminder that real West Indian life does exist in the Bahamas after all.

The mailboats are the Out Islanders’ lifeline. Pretty much every tea-bag, breeze-block, can of condensed milk and car that reaches them is transported this way. And that’s not to forget the mail of course, some of which also travels by sea. They also take passengers if requested, which makes a novel way of travelling around the islands. As many of them travel overnight, you even get a cheap (well, comparatively, it is the Bahamas) bunk for the night.

With a departure scheduled for 5pm I was a little panicked when Bahamas Air thrummed into Nassau Airport two hours late, at five minutes to five. But this is the Bahamas. When I finally pitched up, Bahamas Daybreak III, 120 foot long, destination Governor’s Harbour and Rock Sound in Eleuthera, was still surrounded by piles of cargo.

There was all the chaos of the dock: shouts of instruction, jokes and high five greetings and in the background a small stereo screaming tinny dancehall rap -- Murderer! A fork lift truck beetled back and forth lifting pallets on board, which were then shunted or hefted by men: bread in crates, breezeblocks, bags of cement, tile grout and kitty litter, tinned fruits from Trinidad, sacks of iodised salt, industrial boxes of M&Ms, slabs of Sprite. There were pot plants, films for the cinema (Black Hawk Down, Snow Dogs), private packages for Eric Cooper and Mr Hesley Johnson, and bags of onions, asparagus tips and boxes of wine for the hotels. The mailboats have been known to take coffins and even a horse or two, but tonight’s most exotic charge, swinging beneath the bow-crane, was a Bahamas Police Jeep – its motto Courage, Integrity, Loyalty stamped on its door.

Loading was clearly going to continue for some time yet. I headed off to grab some food, passing boats headed for Exuma, Bimini (Hemingway’s hangout in Islands in the Stream) and the delightfully named Ragged Island. Under the stanchions of Paradise Island bridge are a line of stalls selling fried fish and the local speciality cracked conch. Conch comes out of its shell, a bit like a dalek, as a rubbery handkerchief with a claw. It is tough so it is battered (with a hammer) and then battered again (with batter) before being deep fried and served with hot pepper sauce.

Eventually Bahamas Daybreak III left, in darkness, just a couple of hours late. We glided past the sailing yachts, fishing boats and the gin palaces into the open sea, leaving the Paradise Island high-rises behind. A full moon lit the calm sea up for miles around.

The captain allowed me up into the wheelhouse, where there was a bank of machines, radar, gps, depth sounders, automatic pilot. When I asked about the weather he paused and looked at the sky. I was poised for a nugget of sailor’s wisdom, for a moment:

‘Ah doan know. Mi didn’ look at de forecast.’

It looked pretty flat anyway.

He described the route, following a string of romantic sounding ‘cays’: Rose Island, Booby Rocks, Samphire, Six Shilling… The whole trip crossed the Great Bahama Bank, where the sea is never more than about 30 feet deep. It is also drug and desperation territory. One mailboat captain, cruising along on a pitch black night, actually sliced a boat of Haitian refugees in half. In their bid to reach America undetected they were travelling overloaded, without lights.

We docked before first light and the unloading began. The dock at Governor’s Harbour was soon littered with piles of goods. At dawn the shop-owners, hotel managers and private individuals expecting packages appeared, loaded their pick-ups and sped off. The bread truck arrived. Mr Hesley Johnson’s boxes sat for a while and then were gone. One man cussed the captain for bringing the wrong cargo and another searched the boat for a door-frame that simply wasn’t there. By nine the dock was nearly clear and Bahamas Daybreak III was on its way to Rock Sound in the south of the island.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ravenala madagascariensis - The Traveller's Tree

One of the most distinctive plants you will see around the Caribbean is the Traveller’s Tree, which stands in a splay of massive leaves up to fifteen feet long. They point vertically, rolled like a parchment to begin with, but they soon unfurl and gradually point off the vertical, like the hands of a clock, as each new leaf takes the previous one’s place. The most particular characteristic of the traveller’s tree, though, is that the leaves grow in a single plane, giving it the appearance of a huge fan.

Sometimes it is called the Traveller’s Palm, but this is in fact incorrect as it is not a palm at all. The source of the confusion is clear as it grows in a similar way, but it is actually more closely related to the banana. The leaves are distinctly bananery to look at and when the tree fruits it drops a proboscis with an extraordinary fruit like a series of lobster claws (very similar to the lobster claw heliconia). Its botanical name, ravenala madagascariensis, gives a clear indication where it originates, but it is now all over the tropical world.

So, why the name? It has often been said that the fan stands aligned east–west, thereby helping travellers to know their direction. This, it turns out, is not true, as they grow aligned in other directions as well. However, they are useful to travellers as they are a reliable source of water. At the base of the fan, between the stems of the leaves, is a sort of cup in which water collects as it runs down the stem. Stick a straw in there, or more likely drill a small hole, and you can find water.

For more information about Caribbean plants and flowers, see the Definitive Guide to Caribbean Gardens and Flowers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Boston Bay is full of Jerks, Maroons and Buccaneers

It was an unexpected reaction. As I handed a ticket through a grille, the man behind the bars reached for a machete… But then, with his other hand he grabbed a half chicken - recently barbecued, slightly charred and glistening. It looked delicious. He slapped it onto the block and proceeded to hack it into pieces. Then he lobbed the hacked chicken into a large piece of paper.

‘Pepper sauce?’ he asked.

Not likely, I thought. ‘No thanks,’ I said.

I know about pepper sauce. It infects everything organic for yards around, with a scalding overlay that sears your taste buds into non-sensibility. Actually it’s worse. It’s painful. To be honest there is enough chilli for me in the jerk mix already.

While eating, sitting at a plastic deck chair, I turned to musing on the name jerk. I have often wondered whether it is related somehow to beef jerky, the flavoured, dried meat so beloved of South Africans and once of cowboys.

The leading theory is that both names come from a process called charqui. Apparently the South American Indian Quechua tribe would salt meat and then dry it in the sun or over low fires. Actually there have been processes like this all over the world. The Caribbean buccaneers - seventeenth century hunters in Haiti - did a similar thing to wild pig meat and to beef cattle. Their name, which was taken from their boucans, or grills, was eventually given to bacon. The buccaneers would sell the dried meat to ships.

Jerking in Jamaica had a slightly different version, even though it took the name. The Maroons, escaped slaves who hid out in remote mountains, needed a method of cooking which would not give up a smell or leave a visible smoke trail in the sky. Their solution was to cook their meat – again wild pig, largely – slowly, in underground ovens. The salting became a marinade and nowadays it is cooked in barbecues in the ground.

There are jerk centres all over Jamaica now, though the home of jerk is in the east, beneath the John Crow Mountains, where one group of Maroons used to live. Hence the many Jerk Centres lining the roadside in Boston Bay in Portland.

Of course it’s hard not to muse on the name as well as the origins. A Jerk Centre?! You wonder what people would do in there. Body-pop and break dance badly? Take over-acting to a new level? And not only do you get Jerk Centres, but I once passed an ‘Executive Jerk Centre’. Blimey. Perhaps they dress up in suits, chat over-earnestly and take to heart all the advice from about the latest business self-improvement books.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Papiaments - Chatter in Curaçao, Babble in Bonaire, Anything in Aruba?

Of all the creoles you hear in the Caribbean the oddest is surely the one which comes from the ABC islands - the cluster of three Netherlands Antilles off the coast of Venezuela - Papiamento, as it is known in Aruba (in Curaçao it is called Papiamentu and in Bonaire, Papiamen.

As the great traders of the Caribbean, the Dutch were most concerned most with ports. And in Curaçao, a generally low-lying and barren island, they found a truly magnificent harbour (Bonaire and Aruba they took to protect the approaches from seaborne invasion). Willemstad worked very successfully as a port for centuries, and it gathered, as you would expect, an immense number of different types of people - Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans, even a few Indonesians from the Dutch East Indies. The different strains baked into an extraordinary creole mix. There is even a (culinary) dish that mixes oriental rice and Edam cheese. Very odd.

And you can imagine what happened with the language. A hundred different strains intermingled, to create sounds that are more than the sum of their parts. As an anglo outsider, you think momentarily that it might be Spanish, but then you hear unaccustomed and wayward sounds, as though the words have got out of control. There is the background staccato of Spanish – a taca-taca-taca – with an occasional interloping, possibly Portuguese vowel – a taca-taca-taca-wow – and then the oddest Dutch interjection – a taca-taca-taca-wow-taca-plömpf!

Interestingly, the word Papiament, which - logically at least - means ‘chatter’ or ‘spoken language’, can have the sense of both ‘Parliament’ and ‘babble’. A reassuring thought for all voters...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Pitons By Chopper - A St Lucia Fly By

Helicopter travel is not that regular in the Caribbean, but it does happen. Choppers are used for sightseeing sometimes and of course they are useful for getting to remote places quickly, high into the mountains, for instance.

My only helicopter trip in the Caribbean was courtesy of LeSport in St Lucia, when as part of a BBC team I was flown from the international airport in the south to the north of the island, the location of the hotel. It saved a long journey by road and of course it is fun to do. And there was one exceptional moment during the trip. I expect the pilots love doing it, but as a passenger it was stomach-lurching as it was impressive and unforgettable.

Helicopters are always fun to travel in. We were sent forward by the hostess to the machine which was idling on the tarmac, dipping our heads as we came under the rotors. I blagged my way to the front seat next to the pilot and grabbed the headphones. The pilot talked briefly to the control tower and then tensed as he deliberately pressed the footplate and held onto his gear stick. The rotors ground into the air, the cage of the airframe shuddering, whining and screaming a hundred different mechanical complaints.

We lifted gradually and at thirty feet the pilot put the nose down and drove us forwards. His eyes were on the horizon, but I watched the ground pass away beneath us - tarmac, grass, perimeter fence, cattle, a rivulet, individual trees dotted in a plain, a village of red roofs along a serpentine valley, a car making its way along a half hidden road five hundred feet below us. And then the interminable green, with barely a visible human imprint, just an occasional plot cut into the steep hillsides. Otherwise it was simply the canopy, like a green blanket covering the steep valleys and clefts that ran across our path.

We climbed, steadily, keeping pace with the rising ground - six, eight hundred feet, a thousand, twelve hundred. The Gros Piton rose on our left, a massive lump. I can’t remember at what point the tip of the Petit Piton appeared, but gradually it imposed itself on the surroundings, a spike of stone soaring out of the greenery. We chugged on and gradually up, maintaining a position a couple of hundred feet above the canopy, the green sea of the forest.

I guessed what was coming, but there is nothing to prepare you for the gut-wrenching, utterly boggling moment when it happens. Suddenly we cleared the lip of the land. It was like a fairground ride. The carpet of green beneath us fell away five hundred feet in an instant and suddenly we were a tiny blob in a massive volcanic bowl, all of which was clearly visible in the glass bubble of the helicopter. A miniature tennis court, red roofs dotted in the greenery, tiny fluorescent windsurf sails on the beach far below.

To make it worse, the pilot began to descend at once – a touch more quickly that he needed to, perhaps - and my stomach was left a hundred feet above me. The blackened wall of the Petit Piton is so vast that it seemed just feet ahead and I wanted to shout at him to watch out – surely we were about to pile into it – even though intellectually I knew it was half a mile away.

But it was all in a day’s work for him. He calmly swung the airframe around to the left, swooping, down a thousand feet over the Jalousie Hilton (as it was then) and out to sea, swinging back into land and coming in to rest on their landing pad on the water’s edge. The other passenger got out and we continued our journey. We climbed and climbed and headed north along the coast, passing over the bays, beaches and towns. The Caribbean coast of St Lucia is exceptional in itself, but nothing can compare to a close up of the Petit Piton from a chopper.
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