December 27, 2008

Charting the Caribbean (the way I remember it)

If you were to close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine the West Indies, what would you see? The sun rising blearily on an unruffled blue ocean? Timeless beaches of inviolate yellow sand, with the slight violet hue of colored shells? Long fringes of palm trees shaking of their sleep in the gentlest of breezes? Or mornings of bustling activity, as markets spring into life, with the first sunny voices echoing sonorously in the clearings down innumerable goat tracks as people throw out greetings to neighbors or acquaintances, and converge on the towns with their wares borne aloft, bringing yet more color to color? More down to earth, perhaps, you might think of awaking to a dazzling sun, emerging onto the terrace to a breakfast of mango or papaya in the still, warm air, and contemplating the ocean with the yachts basking contentedly in the harbor, awaiting their next port of call, that island in the distant haze…

Life in the Caribbean is this, all of this, certainly - but not only this. Each island provides a variation on the theme, a different note; each has its own personality. There are hectic islands like Trinidad, just as there are island, like Dominica, of deep mystery and peace, where nature still dominates man, where the great forests, rivers and eerie landscapes have barely changed in five centuries, and much of the terrain has scarcely been explored. Some islands are mere specks above sea level, figuring on mariners’ charts; others, those to the north, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, are almost continents unto themselves. Uniting them all, is something languorous, carefree and anarchic in the atmosphere, difficult to pinpoint but recognizable as Caribbean.
There are islands and peoples which have been so marked by their colonial history that they have come to resemble their occupants’ lands: Barbados, as English as pudding in outlook, behavior, almost in landscape; St. Barthelemy, a Norman island in a Creole sea where the inhabitants still wear eighteen century costume; Willemstad could be nowhere but in the Dutch provinces. The sophisticated elite of Haiti manipulate French as though in an eighteen century Paris salon. All the islands have changed hands several times, Dominica no less than ten, to the consternation of the Caribs, who were never sure who the ruling party was.

Wherever one goes and whatever former colonial power put its stamp on the land, the Caribbean welcome is one of lighthearted abandon. Whether in the patter of Creole, the strident overtones of Spanish, or the lilting rhythm of English, with outrageous images from any source, the message invites one to loosen up. The West Indian himself has superb self confidence that is unprickable; prove him wrong, by sheer talk, he’ll prove he’s at least half-right.

It’s hard sometimes to put one’s finger on what is typically West Indian; one thinks one found it, only to see it vanish. But occasionally a scene appears to seize its essence. In the centre of a town, a slight scrape between a taxi and another vehicle. Both drivers emerge, rolling their eyes. The crowd gathers, curious. Will things turn nasty? Each driver unites his audience, turns his back on his adversary, and, disregarding him, harangues his followers. ‘Naw, I ain’t saying he wasn’t looking, mon, ar’m saying he wasn’t looking enough. I’m saying he wasn’t looking enough, not he wasn’t looking,’ and so on. From the movement of the crowd, one can feel the tug of the rhetoric. Soon one driver is left high and dry, and, with tail between his legs, addresses his adversary, who ‘nobly’ forgives him. As so often, the Caribbean solution has no need of the law.

To many travelers, the great charm of the West Indies is the complete aimlessness; one can sail from port to port, bath and lounge beside the beaches, without the slightest pang of conscience.

Because West Indian art is virtually nonexistent, it is all the more pleasurable to notice the use made of imagination all around one: the surrounds to doors, the ingenious use of hencoops, and the improvisation of everything from household utensils to means of transport. And the colors! Colors with everything.
Flowers everywhere, tropical shapes, tropical colors, and tropical smells.
And always, everywhere, the sound of music. At the drop of a hat, feet start tapping, bottoms wriggle, hands clap, music takes over. Music has more than once been called the disaster of the Antilles. But try to stop it! A stick, a bottle, a tin, a comb, some saucepans, and a band is formed. An occasion? Anything goes…

The soul of the West Indies speaks in the evening, when the sun goes down, the warm breeze brings with it smells, balms that one hadn’t noticed by day; the bays light up. Houses come to life, the rum begins to take effect, voices rise to rhetorical peaks-speeches that should have made history, and the sheer, unadulterated delight of talk for talk’s sake…outrageous hyperbole!


Anonymous said...

gone baby, gone

x Provo said...

alas, you are correct