The Caribbean is quite well known for its volcanoes, which stand in a line between St Kitts and Grenada, where the Caribbean tectonic plate is gradually forcing its way under the Atlantic plate. They are very active, relatively. And a few people will have heard of the catastrophic eruption of Mt Pelé on Ascension Day morning in May 1902, which killed 30,000 people within a couple of minutes and completely destroyed the town of St Pierre, then the cultural capital of Martinique and the French West Indies.
But what about this for a curious natural phenomenon? In the September following the eruption, as the mountain continued to erupt, a column of solidified lava began to protrude from the top of Mont Pelé. The 'Tower of Pelé, a volcanic plug between 300 and 500 feet across, was so hot that it glowed. Over the next month it pushed its way up out of the crater until it reached a height of nearly 1000 feet. On one day it managed to grow 78 feet, but with each new volcanic eruption, the material split and cracked and eventually in 1929 it collapsed.
You see names on buses all over the Caribbean. Some islands go in for it more than others, but they offer a good insight into Caribbean life.
In fact in Haiti they go far further than just naming their buses, They dress them up like circus lorries. But there is usually a religious slogan written on the front and side in Kweyol (Haitain Creole). Hey, it’s comforting to know, as you walk carelessly across a road that was empty a nano-second before, and look up to discover you are about to be run over by a super-charged gypsy caravan, that the last thing you read will be a blessing -
Béni Soit l’Eternel (Blessed is the Eternal Lord).
On one bus I saw the word Nissan written right underneath. Translated it would mean -
Blessed is the Eternal Nissan - not such a comforting thought to die with, unless you’re a Japanese salaryman possibly.
In most islands buses have a simple name, sometimes the driver’s nickname (most West Indians have them). In St Vincent recently you had the pleasure of nearly being run over by – or to be fair, getting a ride in -
Captain Sess, Rasta Ride, Freddy or Zion.
Or it might be Diplomat. Who knows how that got its name - a foreign ministry official turned taximan? His other car is a Diplomat? And Squeala? Does that come from the agonised screeching of his tyres, as he takes off to his next destination. Or was he involved in a B-movie and spilled the beans under torture. And what about the delightfully named Random?
Other names speak of the drivers’ (sometimes inestimable) self esteem - not to forget their driving prowess, no doubt -
No Fear!Shy Guy (yeah, likely), Xtreme and Rush.
And others are just plain surreal, but have a certain catchiness – no doubt they are the coolest bus in town –and therefore the one you definitely want to ride. What would it mean to ride in -
But my favourite name for a bus was always Not Guilty, Your Honour!, a bus that would ply its trade – or is that roar off in a cloud of grey exhaust? - along the west coast main road in Barbados. Perhaps it was a form of rebellion. You can just imagine the driver, in trouble again, standing in the dock,
"Are you, Mr John Smith, the driver of bus named Not Guilty, Your Honour? And did you drive Not Guilty, Your Honour at speeds without the specifications of the law? And have you anything to say in your defence…?"
If leeward and windward always seem unnecessarily complicated to landlubbers, then pity the poor visitor to Guadeloupe.
The two ‘wings’ of the ‘butterfly’ of Guadeloupe are called Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre. Logic would tell you that ‘Basse’-Terre, meaning ‘low’ ground, would be the lower one and Grande-Terre (‘big ground’) the larger. Not so! Basse-Terre is a hulking volcanic colossus that soars to nearly 5000 feet, while Grande-Terre is physically not really that impressive at all. Mysteriously Grande-Terre is actually smaller in surface area than Basse-Terre too, so it is hard to see the justification for the name.
As it turns out Basse-Terre is the French equivalent of windward because it is the ‘lower ground’ with regard to the wind. Leeward is generally ‘capesterre’, so why Grande-Terre is called so is another mystery - until it becomes apparent that it is ‘grande’ by comparison to the two tiny Petit-Terre islands just offshore.
But in all of this linguistic confusion there is one shining light of oddity. One of Guadeloupe’s offshore islands is called la Désirade. Why? Because it was the first land that sailors would see on the old Atlantic crossing. After anything up to three months at sea they would be scouring the horizon, longing for any sight of land. La Désirade was literally ‘the desired one’.
With all the short inter-island flights, Caribbean travellers spend quite a bit of time hanging around in airports. Once, these were tiny wooden sheds, with overhead fans spinning...‘squeak, clunk, squeak, clunk’ - or just sweltering silence - but now all but the smallest airports have an air-conditioned departure lounge.
This time, in the early Nineties it was, I found myself in the old inter-island terminal at Fort de France in Martinique. Actually I was not waiting to board a flight, rather waiting for my luggage, which seemed to be taking an age to reach the baggage hall. I was the only person who had got off the LIAT flight in Fort de France, so I imagined it abandoned on the tarmac somewhere, just lost in the system. My imagination began to run away with me. Perhaps, this being France, the baggage handlers were on strike (it’s one of the habits that the French West Indians have happily picked up from their metropolitan counterparts). I approached a person in a window and asked gingerly what was going on.
‘Trente minutes!’ (Thirty minutes) Thunk. The window closed, as though that was explanation enough.
There are times when you huff and puff in frustration at this sort of thing, and demand to see the manager, but good things happen to those who wait around in the Caribbean. So I found a plastic chair and sat down to wait. It was a fairly typical Caribbean scene. The two short carousels were surrounded by piles and piles of luggage, stacks of the things that you see so regularly in the islands, the odd car tyre, massive cardboard boxes tied up with twine and addressed to people with wonderfully exotic names like Hypolite Louis d’Or. And then those woven sacks of red, white and blue plastic, with spiky pineapple crowns sticking out of them.
As I looked around I realised there must be something going on, with all this luggage stacking up. But there was silence, extreme inactivity. It could have been a surreal French movie. The minutes ticked by. No other flights arrived, so I sat alone. An occasional security man or porter came in, scratched his head in confusion, and left. I sat, having generally dreamy thoughts, punctured briefly by volcanic bad-temper that then subsided soon enough.
Then a man arrived, in tropical French uniform, long socks, pressed shorts, powder blue shirt and the paraphernalia of officialdom, gold epaulettes, pistol, possibly even a képi cap (the memory is too distant now). At his side was a sniffer dog, a delicate, bright-looking thing about the size of a spaniel. Perhaps I had been unfair to the baggage handlers. Perhaps they weren’t on strike. Perhaps this was a hunt for something particular.
The two of them began their rounds, lead paying in and out as they negotiated the piles of bags. The dog trotted happily from one pile to the next, sniffing carefully around the suitcases, occasionally hopping daintily onto the carousel to test the air. The tension was building. Sniffer dogs are trained to sit when they smell something. Perhaps there was a massive stash in the pile of luggage. I waited for it to go quiet and settle back on its haunches.
But suddenly the dog changed. It became uppity, a little too keen on a certain pile. The stash must be massive, I thought, to generate this sort of excitement. He buried his nose under a couple of awkwardly stacked bags, then pulled back and hopped onto the suitcase above, lunging too keenly and slipping as he made his way forward. The tension was unbearable. A whole suitcase of Colombia’s finest must be right there, in that pile. The dog was straining at his lead now and his minder was having to hold him back.
Suddenly, there was a cat. It leapt vertically out of the pile of luggage, within an ace of the straining dog’s jaws, danced over the uneven bags and sprinted, at about ninety miles per hour, along the rubber of the carousel. The dog was onto it like a shot, paws scrabbling at the suitcases, straining at the lead, throttling itself in its effort to get away. But the cat dived through the plastic flaps at the end of the carousel and was gone.
Rivers of Time is about captivation by the Caribbean. It is set largely on Nevis, which is ideal for a romantic dream of this sort to begin with. More than on other islands it is possible to see the history there – the plantation buildings poking through the overgrowth and the incredibly pretty stone bridges marooned by the straightened road. Pause for a moment and in these ruins you can feel the effort, care, even love that went into building the island. It is this connection with the West Indies, the people who carved their life in a frontier land, that is the most romantic tale of all.
As you might expect from the title, Rivers of Time momentarily draws together the streams of several lives. One is that of the author herself, Dr June Goodfield, who visits the island on holiday (and stays at Montpelier Plantation Inn, itself an old plantation restored). She is shown a memorial stone lost in the bush. There is not much more than three names – Philippa Prentis Phillips and those of her two husbands - and the year of her death. But it is the start of a compulsion and the courses of the two lives combine. Who was this other woman? What was her life like? How did it start and end? Captivation complete.
The discovery is a process that takes 20 years in all. Dr Goodfield describes the many people she meets and how she trawls libraries and archives, gathering any, even the tiniest, nugget of information that can contribute to her story. At one stage we hear that among the 12,000 emigrants recorded in one archive just two were called Philippa – what luck that there were only two, but at one every 6000, what an effort to find them.
The book divides into three sections, the first and last of which are a frame on which the story is woven. They are written in the first person by Dr Goodfield and tell the story of the discovery, her motivation and her eventual resolution of the search. But the other, the middle section, is very different. Here the author departs from the factual and personal and, using her considerable knowledge of Nevis and undoubted expertise as a historian, tells the story in a different way, as a historical novel.
She follows the story of Philippa Stephens from her village in Ashburton in Devon in the early 1600s, through the plague which decimated her village, to emigration in The Margarett in 1634 and her arrival in Nevis. Then she tells of her life, as Philippa and her husband carve out their plantation on Saddle Hill, planting first tobacco and indigo and later sugar. Their lives mirror the success and development of Nevis itself, which was so fertile and productive that it was known as ‘the Queen of the Caribbees’.
As Goodfield herself acknowledges, to fictionalise a story in this way is a controversial method among historians, but she feels that it is the best way for her to bring back the memories of these other, now forgotten lives. Of course there is simply no way of being sure that it is true (and life for Philippa is quite likely to have been blacker and more desperate than she describes) - but by presenting it in this way she makes it more compelling to read. The drier aspects of the history, all that peering in documents, which sustains the frame of the story is reduced, so that it does not become overwhelming. There is a good deal of imaginary dialogue, which though clearly modern, is otherwise convincing and brings the lives and concerns of Philippa Prentis and her family alive.
Rivers of Time is an easy and pleasant read. It is also revealing. While the narrative is necessarily uncertain, the setting on the other hand is solid. You can feel the work of the historian in the background, drawing on extensive research and understanding to paint life in the early days of Nevis, when the small colony struggled for survival but gradually grew into a successful settlement.
The author also has an obvious love for Nevis, which will make a regular visitor smile. There is a touching sense of gentle Nevisian charm and politeness. And, in typical West Indian fashion, as soon as word gets about of Goodfield’s quest, everyone pitches in to help.
And Rivers of Time was certainly enough to captivate my wife. She began to read it over my shoulder and then nipped off with the book when I put it down.
Rivers of Time – Why is everyone talking to Philippa? By June Goodfield, published by Matador, www.riversoftime.com.