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.
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