It’s Spring Break of 2008 and I am on my stomach looking into the crater of an active volcano. The wind is punishing and I clutch the earth, terrified and exhilarated.
Let me back up this story and tell you how I got there.
In March of 2008, I was 23 and living in Manhattan. The winter had been long and extremely harsh for me, a native Floridian. I was living with my boyfriend at the time, we will call him the Senator throughout this story because for some unknown reason his dream was to run for the Senate. (We broke up shortly after this story so I don’t know if he ever achieved his goal.) The Senator was from a small island in the Caribbean called St. Vincent. We were both graduate students: he was studying law at NYU and I had just begun a master’s degree in art theory at Pratt Institute (you can probably guess which one of us ended up making money). Spring break was rapidly approaching when he offered up the plan to travel to St. Vincent and the Grenadines to visit family and get some much-needed sun. I agreed, looking for a break from the first full winter I had ever experienced and jumping at the chance to take the second international trip of my life.
First we flew home to south Florida to meet with his mother and pick up the many random American items she had packed for family in St. Vincent in a giant, floppy suitcase. His family constantly sent things that you couldn’t procure for one reason or another on the islands. With the huge, overweight luggage in tow, we headed for the airport and embarked on the first leg of our journey. We had a layover in Trinidad and since it was 2008 and before a lot of extra security measures, we were allowed to wander around outside of the airport to buy lunch. I tried a fried flying fish sandwich with a side of fries, oily and wilting in the island heat. Finally, it was time for the flight to the tiny island the Senator called home.
An airline employee led us onto the hot tarmac and pointed at the smallest plane I had ever laid eyes on (later I would ride in a two-seat Cessna that made this plane look like a limousine, but I digress). The tiny propellers were being tethered to the ground by several shoelaces tied together so that they wouldn’t spin in the wind. In 2008, I was terrified of flying. The moment I saw the little 8-seater plane I accepted death and mentally said goodbye to all friends and family. I was opening sobbing as they shut the door and dry heaving as we bumped and swooped our way into the open air – partially from motion sickness and partially from fear. The flight was short and turbulent, and about 15 minutes in we were handed little boxes of Juicy Juice. The view from the plane was beautiful as the volcanic mountains of St. Vincent appeared in the distance and the perfectly blue Caribbean water lapped against its white-sand beaches. As we were landing I saw the remains of a tiny plane under the perfectly blue waves. Apparently, it had crash-landed there quite recently, which did nothing to soothe my frazzled nerves.
We landed and I shakily walked across the tarmac into another tiny airport to have my bags checked. A gentleman in army fatigues opened the giant suitcase the Senator’s mother had packed full of American goods. I hadn’t looked in the bag before we left, assuming she knew what she was doing. The man pulled out what looked for all intents and purposes like a homemade bomb. It was a brown parcel wrapped with masking tape with little holes showing tin foil poking out beneath. In the United States, I’m pretty sure I would have been sent directly to jail with no phone call, but the man calmly began unwrapping the nightmare package right then and there. It turned out to be a giant hunk of many pounds of cheddar cheese. I laughed nervously as the Senator argued with the man to try to keep his mother’s precious cheese. How in the actual hell did this get past American security? I silently cursed his entire family as other men in army fatigues gathered round to see what the mystery bag held. They pulled out sausages, more cheese, a small pile of cash, a silver cup with initials, and many other small gifts and trinkets. At this point I was so exhausted from travel that I didn’t care if I was going to jail, I just wanted to lie down. The men confiscated all of the food goods and let us pack the rest of the nonsense back into the bag and sent us on our way. There is a new, larger, and updated airport on St. Vincent now. St. Vincent was once called Youloumain by the native Carib people. The Senator was part Carib and part Portuguese, with a slight Vincentian accent that came out more and more the longer we stayed on the island.
We finally stepped out of the airport into the humid spring air to find the Senator’s aunt waiting for us in her little stick shift car. She immediately handed me two bananas and shuffled me into the back seat, plopping the large contraband bag in the front seat, the only place it would fit. Without anything better to do, I slowly ate the banana and listened silently as the Senator and his aunt caught up with family news and yelled at passing pedestrians that would wander into the street at random. The ride was a harrowing experience on very narrow roads bending around cliff-sides and hugging up against deep ravines. We arrived at an adorable two-bedroom house on the side of a hill. It had a bright copper roof and a large patio with hammocks and lazy fans spinning. You could see down to the beach, which was about a five-minute walk down a dirt path through banana trees.
I wanted a shower. I was hot, cranky, hungry, and sweating profusely as the house had no air conditioning. The water in the shower was freezing as it was pumped from an underground well that caught and stored rainwater. I didn’t mind the frigid water after being in the heat. There was no internet or cell service in or around the house, which was unsurprising anywhere in 2008. Auntie made us something delicious called “bun-up” (which I think meant burn-up) which was a blackened chicken and rice dish. She offered us a side of salted fish (salted fish is VERY popular in these parts). We washed it down with Hawaiian Punch which I hadn’t tasted since I was a kid. Afterward, we walked down to the nearby beach. The sand was warm and perfectly white. It was relatively empty, with a few fishermen tending lines and a smattering of pale German tourists from a cruise ship docked in town swimming and frolicking in the waves. We swam in the perfectly warm and clear water, with little fish darting around our feet. The Senator approached a fisherman and bought a couple of fresh fish to take home for dinner.
Arriving back at the bungalow with our catch of the day the Senator excitedly found breadfruit in Auntie’s kitchen. He descaled and prepared the fish and brought them and the breadfruit out to the backyard. His aunt’s two little dogs, which looked like a cross between a corgi and a dachshund but were colloquially called “poodles,” scurried around our feet, excited for little bites of our dinner. He made an impromptu grill with the side of a shopping cart and some logs. He placed the breadfruit and the fish on the fire as the two dogs and a well-fed cow looked on. Breadfruit is a staple of Vincentian cuisine and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was grilled to perfection and just as good as any side of french fries or starchy potatoes. For dessert, I had the best fruit I’d ever tasted in my life: a “sugar apple.” Also known as cherimoya, this fruit looks like a little lumpy, green armadillo, and tastes like heaven. Sweet white flesh surrounds black seeds which you spit into the dirt, hoping another sugar apple tree springs up there. The fruit absolutely blew my mind and it would be years before I could find one again in the US. That night we slept soundly in a bunk bed under mosquito netting, listening to a storm hit the metal roof in a soothing melody. Mosquitoes are no joke in St. Vincent, but I was too tired to care.
The next morning the Senator’s uncle picked us up and took us for a tour of Kingstown, the capital and main commercial center of St. Vincent. His uncle was an undertaker and looked the part. The family had a monopoly on the afterlife in St. Vincent, supplying almost all of the island and its neighbors with coffins and funerals. He waved his hands this way and that, pointing out sights and telling us about the locals, the economy, and the state of politics. There were political signs and posters everywhere. The island is incredibly beautiful and the people are friendly and welcoming. We stopped to have a lunch of pumpkin soup, more breadfruit, and fried fish, before heading to an old fort on a mountaintop with gorgeous views of the island. Fort Charlotte was built by the British during the colonial era in the 19th century, and it overlooks the harbor of Kingstown. You can see the nearby islands of Bequia and the Grenadines, and even Granada on a clear day if you bring binoculars. I was fascinated to find out at one point the fort held a leper’s colony, and you can still see the ruins of a leper’s bath near the sea below.
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