Sunday, February 17, 2013

Visitors in the Caribbean: Part I

            As I reported in my previous post, Ivan’s parents had their vacation right here in Grenada.  Their flight arrived on the evening of February 5th and their stay extended right up until the morning of Valentine’s Day.  Since their departure, we’ve received notice of their safe arrival back home and belated Valentine’s Day dinner at The Cheesecake Factory (of which I am seething with jealousy).
            If you’re anything of an avid reader—or as I presume, more accurately, a skimmer—of mine, you know that I am hopelessly incapable of abridging any of my mundane experiences, let alone happenings that I consider exciting, captivating or, at the very least, noteworthy.  Submitting to my wont to drone on and on at the expense of my waning enthusiasts, I’ve decided to just go ahead and divide our recent adventures into more than one blog post.

Division One

            Vicki and Larry stayed at the Flamboyant, a resort that caps the western point of Grand Anse beach.  The location was ideal, providing immediate access to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches and just a short walk from restaurants, the Spiceland Mall and the SGU Grand Anse bus stop.  From their balcony, Vicki and Larry had a (somewhat) uninterrupted view of the turquoise Caribbean waters cradled by the mountainous green island and the constant flow of tourist-laden cruise ships porting in St. George.  During the day, the orange-roofed buildings around the Carenage harbor were as visible as the blinking lights of returning yachts in the evening.  Were it not for the series of thick, black electric cables running just above the balcony, the view would have been perfect.  
Vicki and Larry during our campus tour

            The Thursday after Vicki and Larry arrived was Grenada’s 39th Independence Day.  Marked by decorations in the national colors of yellow, red and green galore, the country expresses its enthusiasm by organizing a festive celebration at the stadium in St. George (the capital).  Ivan and I have never gone to the stadium on Independence Day (neither this nor last year), but I’ve enjoyed the pictures posted by my friends of military parades, costumed dancers, parachutists and the swarming crowds of bedecked Grenadians, forming undulating masses of yellows, reds and greens.
            This Independence Day was spent at Magazine beach by Ivan and I and his parents.  We snorkeled in the slightly choppy water, spotting flurries of indigo fish and brittle black sea urchins.  Ivan, my stalwart husband, is not a natural swimmer.  As I can think of no graceful way of putting it—he sinks like a rock.  With his buoyancy belt Christmas present, though, he was able to snorkel with Larry and me.  Of course, without the constant compulsion to scan the sea floor for Ivan, I became a little too enthusiastic in my diving and flipping.  After choking on and subsequently swallowing about a cup of seawater (and thus ensuring a fair amount of evening gastric distress), I gave up and we headed ashore.  Stomach ache aside, I had a fun day and the weather was excellent for a beach visit.
            Friday evening the four of us joined an international crowd of visiting family members and their respective students to take part in one of SGU’s Family Weekend events.  That is, the school was organizing and providing transportation (at a nominal fee) for visiting family to take a trip to Gouyave—Grenada’s largest fishing village—along the northwestern coast of the island.  Gouyave (hometown of 2012 Olympic winner, Kirani James) holds a weekly event referred to as Fish Friday.  A draw to locals, students and tourists alike, Fish Friday is pretty much what it sounds like.  A line of about a dozen tarps supported by skeletal aluminum frames line an elbow alley in the town and local chefs and/or fishermen fry (what we assume to be fresh) fish in crudely assembled kitchenettes, selling their breaded and dripping nosh in Styrofoam boxes.
             But I’m getting too far ahead of myself.  First there was the ride to Gouyave.  Six SGU buses—to you folks at home, that is the standard school bus in size—were required to cart everyone up the island.  This event was pretty popular, it seemed.  We cut through the capital first, zigzagging our way up impossibly steep hills and unforgivingly narrow avenues, before emerging in the heart of the town.  This being Larry and Vicki’s first glimpse at St. George, I tried to point out a few landmarks as we made our way through the lamp-lit streets.  On the left is Sweet Traditions Bakery and the Esplanade Mall; on the right is the Shipwreck souvenir store and the spice market; on the left is the bus terminal and the fish market; on the right is the meat market.
            St. George’s meat market—an open-air sort of building, with mullioned windows of shattered glass and iron bars—has been a curiosity of mine for some time.  I haven’t actually ventured inside, but have milled around the front gate where women sell offal out of white mixing buckets and hot effluvia escapes from the barred windows in thick waves.  I’m planning to go inside some day; I just have to work up the nerve.  I’m afraid that once I’m inside, I’ll end up buying something unusual to try out of an odd urge to haze myself—like I’m a freshman of Grenada and this is all part of integration.
            Friday evening the meat market’s insides were black and dead.  The gate was closed, its iron bars reflecting the orange street lamps.  Except the last window.  Glowing from between the black bars and lit like a glossy hourglass column of pale wax was a pig, strung up and eviscerated, white like tallow in the fluorescent work light.  I tried to point it out to the others, but I’m not sure they were able to see it in time.
            That, I thought, that is something I would have to request to witness back home.  That is nothing I would accidentally spot out of the window of the school bus.  It’s all part of that integration.

            The trip (about ten miles in a straight line from point A to point B) took us roughly an hour.  With emphasis on the roughly.  Like, a lot of emphasis.  We’d heard from others that the best way to get to Fish Friday was via boat.  As SGU had not chartered a boat for the evening, we had no choice but to brave the gut-wrenching curves at break-neck speed, stopping ourselves from looking out the windows at the sheer cliffs we narrowly swept along.  Thankfully the buses are equipped with handles as they were much needed that evening.  I felt like a popcorn kernel, rocketing around in my seat and, seeing the jostling heads of everyone in front of me, knew I wasn’t alone.
            Our arrival must have been an astonishing moment for the Fish Fry vendors (if they weren’t forewarned) as our crowd of two-hundred crashed into the alley, cameras flashing at the novelty and simplicity of a tiny country’s conventions and its residents’ reactions.  The first tents were swarmed utterly and the vendors within greeted their impatient patrons with the customary Grenadian apathy—that is to say, there was no greeting, only the typical lackluster response to orders and threadbare conversation otherwise, if any at all.  Initially off-putting, the apparent surliness of many local vendors and clerks is happily counterbalanced by the many other perfectly cheerful ones.  One just needs to know where to look to find the cheery vendors (i.e. the souvenir stalls, the steel drum tent, the booze tent, etc.).  I don’t believe the (now expected) surliness is genuine.  Who could be surly when raking in so much money?  But it can be a little startling when your shining excited smile and gleefully skippy tone is met with stone-faced indifference.  This is some sort of culture difference that I have yet to figure out.

            Barely able to squeeze between the throngs of Hawaiian-shirt-wearing eager camera-wielding visitors, we trudged on down the line of tents to find an available counter and order our supper.  We finally found a tent trailing a reasonably short line of customers and squeezed in, craning around to spot what, exactly, was for sale at this particular kitchenette.  We ended up with half of a spiny lobster, a mahi mahi pasta and some fried skipjacks.


             The mahi mahi pasta was fabulous.  The lobster was still cold (having been pre-cooked and frozen before hastily thrown on the grill) and tough.  The fried skipjacks were also cold and had the taste and consistency of fish jerky.  I still ate almost everything, but at that point began wondering what exactly was the draw of Fish Friday.  I don’t particularly care for deep fried foods so I may be a wee bit biased in my assessment; that being said, my favorite part of the evening was probably watching the stray dogs (as there are always stray dogs) ripping up and down the crumbling concrete walkway, snatching bits of fried fish heads and macaroni pie.

            We spent most of our short stay at the end of the elbow alley.  The exit was guarded by our tour guides, corralling us like livestock into the small dining areas and prohibiting our wandering into the underlit recesses of Gouyave, where visiting families of students may have their unspoiled impressions of Grenada corrupted by the desperate poor, with nothing to peddle, lingering upwind of the wealthy tourists.  At the designated time, we were funneled in safe and secure channels, back through the charmingly derelict alleys and onto the buses.
            The ride back to school was considerably smoother, with everyone feeling heavier with food and lighter with drink.  The bus driver’s enthusiasm seemed to have ebbed and he kept a comfortable distance from the cliffs and slowed easily for the speed bumps.  It was fully night for the hour ride down the island and we kept to the coast most of the way.  It’s easy to see the beauty of the island during the day, when the sky is a candy blue and the sea is a rich turquoise and the island is a rolling landscape of velvety greens.  At night, though, the horizon is consumed in a blinding darkness and the only evidence of the sea are insignificant specks of ship lights, glaring through the inky blackness.  Watching those manmade stars pinned against a backdrop of nothingness is the most calming way to end the day.

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