Echoes’ Journey Part IV: A tour of the Caribbean

Echoe’s JourneyMartinique/Bequia/Tobago Cays, February/March 2004

Last Term: Catamaran Echoes left Port Camargue, France, in stormy December 2003 and after a chaotic trip through the Mediterranean and a peaceful yet cathartic one across the Atlantic, safely reached the shore of Fort de France, Martinique. Its crew consisted of Gina-the-dog, a future Antioch student and her father; the trip had no time constraints and no goal…except that, maybe, of freedom. In mid-afternoon we rode the dinghy back to Echoes, anchored in the bay of Petite Anse, a non-touristy, picturesque village with pastel-colored fi shing boats sunbathing on a small deserted beach and stray scabby dogs roaming the empty streets. It was the beginning of our second week in Martinique, and we had just taken a ride across the island. What we had seen was quite different from the village harbored by Petite Anse, it was, in fact, very much like France, the Metropole, as they called it, only with more coconut trees. Or maybe it was very different, except for something in the atmosphere that reminded us of the place we had just left? Still, as we helped Gina out of the red dinghy onto the deck we felt the same urge: get away from here.

One hour later, we had lifted anchor and were sailing to the South. We were laughing behind the steering wheel. It was the fi rst time we had left a place so abruptly, and the exhilaration was unmatched. To know that at any time, anywhere, we could just leave everything at once and be gone an hour later…without anything to prepare on the shore, without anyone to tell where or why we were going… It was an immense relief, a deeply liberating feeling, breaking in an instant years of adolescent frustration about constraints, responsibilities and structure. Complete freedom, detachment from all material ties was now possible. We could change garden every day if we wanted to: there was always an escape, so the dream of escape naturally was gone. The world became an open window.

Three days later I woke up to the sound of the grinding of the anchor’s chain on its track. We were in Bequia, a small island to the South of St Vincent. About sixty boats were anchored in a round bay. Yellow motor taxi boats were roaring through the harbor, bringing sailors and tourists to the shore and back. It was a market day and the town was restless. After making sure the anchor was safely gripped, we climbed in a yellow speedboat as Rasta Tony –joint at the lips and a very proud air– took us to shore. People shouted out or jumped away as Gina led the way. “A bear!” some cried out. No, no, it’s a dog, and she doesn’t like to be called fat, so please…Gina and I sat side by side on the steps of the immigration/customs offi ce as my father went in to get our passports stamped. Fatal strategic mistake! The quarantine offi cials hurried outside and asked me to take this creature back on the boat right away! St Vincent still operated under the rigid quarantine rules of the old British colonizer, and for the following two weeks of our stay in Bequia, Gina had to wait until dark for us to discreetly smuggle her into the dinghy and to a small isolated beach. Hurry, hurry Gina! They can’t fi nd you here!..

It took me a while to get used to the fruit and vegetable market of Bequia. Ran exclusively my middle-aged Rasta men, it was an experience in and by itself. Whenever I—or any other tourist or boat person– approached the perimeter of the market, the harassment started. Hey! Come to my stand! Come here, lady, I have the best! The irony was that absolutely everyone in the market had exactly the same thing on their tables, probably from the same plantation: bananas, mangoes, papayas, sweet potatoes, limes, ginger… And whenever you would set foot inside…well, let’s just say the SOPP didn’t apply. As one shopkeeper, his arm around your shoulder, took you to his incredible stand, another one pulled your arm while he told you about his amazing mangoes while a third one was busy shoving papayas directly in your bag. Possibly, at the same time, one or two might ask you to marry them, but that was just common conversation. Many tourists got upset and refused to approach the market, after experiencing it once. My strategy consisted in going around, buying one item from each stand, and getting out with minimal marital promises. “So, what did you do in Bequia?” Well, we ate fruit. A lot.

After two weeks we left Bequia for the Tobago Cays a bunch of little deserted islands of white sand surrounded by crystal clear water, the postcard type, except that no Photoshop color enhancement was needed to get the bright turquoise color; it was there, for real. When I say deserted, I mean the islands themselves; the sea around them, on the contrary, was pretty much the opposite of deserted: it was, actually, like a fl oating parking lot. To the point that a fi sherman in his speedboat had to come by our hull and tell us that there was one spot, over there, between the Sun Odyssey 40 and the Snowgoose 35, right behind the big Catana, see, but don’t put too much chain on your anchor or you might hit the Beneteau that’s right behind you!

After a masterful maneuver—all the more so because it was made with only one functional engine—we found our space among the forest of masts, and jumped into the transparent water. But the excitement didn’t last. All the boats around us, we fi nally found out, were charters or rental boats. No boat people in sight, only tourists, fresh from the airport and there to spend two weeks on a postcard in supposed paradise. Many Americans, barbecuing on the beach, with the fi sh and lobster local fi shermen had sold them at exorbitant prices. Absolutely no community spirit–the amazing boat people spirit that we were about to discover a few islands away. Each boat crew on its little strip of white sand, on its little island; a superfi cial would-be paradise, a wilderness for sale.

We waited for the wind to shift east. The next day, we raised anchor. Next week: fi rst encounter with real boat people in Curacao, the gathering of a fl eet, and how to anchor by night through the reefs of an atoll.