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.
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