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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