Be Here Now: Petit St. Vincent

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For the "Intimate Escapes" feature in the January/February 2009 issue of ISLANDS, staff editor Sue Youngsteadt wrote about how she and her husband experienced the private Caribbean island of Petit St. Vincent. Now in this exclusive article for islands.com, Sue further explores the island and the personal connection it has for her.

"Oh, the Grenadines!" my well-traveled colleague exclaimed when I told him I'd be traveling there. "That's the true Old Caribbean!"

"Yes," I said, nodding knowingly. In truth, I'd never been to the Windward Islands chain, which curves down like the tail of a timid dog, defining the southeastern corner of the Caribbean Sea. I knew what he meant: The Old Caribbean can still be found in places that escaped the cruise-ship explosion of the 1990s, and these small islands have harbors too shallow to berth a mega-ship. But a much Older Caribbean is what I'm searching for -- the one still shaped by 400 years of colonialism and slavery. My plan: to surreptitiously discover hidden truths about that Caribbean while reporting on how "the other half" travels. I'll be hob-knobbing with that fabled portion of mankind -- the ones who can afford to pay high-season rates of $1,000 a night to stay on private islands like Petit St. Vincent. (Locals pronounce it "Petty" Saint Vincent.)

It is my first morning on PSV, and I've slept like a volcanic rock, just steps from the full force of the Atlantic trade winds. Directed by the rotation of the Earth, these winds move from the northeast at a fairly constant 18 knots in the Grenadines, billowing the spinnakers of sailing craft drawn from around the world.

I carry a morning cup of coffee through the wind-sculpted thicket that encases my beach-side cottage, following a sand path down a few stone stairs to a rugged beach. Instantly I'm enveloped by wind, wrapped in a sonic phenomenon like the sound of a cheering crowd in a distant stadium. A kayaker plows through the blue-gray chop not far from shore, and I recognize the paddler's huge mane of red hair: It belongs to the woman I met on yesterday's flight from Barbados to Union Island. She was the one who smiled sympathetically as I tried to open a folded-down seat on the small plane. "Sit down! Sit down!" the co-pilot had barked at me as the plane began to taxi, the ground crew jogging alongside, trying to latch the door. It was that charter flight and its hair-raising landing on a short island airstrip that clearly separated me from the cruise-ship crowd.

"Hello!" I yell at the kayaker, waving. She raises an arm to wave back, and the kayak hangs motionless in the wind, threatening to lose ground. She turns back to her task, paddling with the clockwork movement of a wind-up toy. Gazing beyond her to the horizon, I realize nothing lies between me and the west coast of Africa, a geographic fact that drew this area deeply into the horror story known as the Trans Atlantic slave trade.

It's hard to believe that a perfect, lapping-wave, white-sand beach lies a mere two-minute walk away, where the resort's main path curves to the leeward side of this 122-acre islet. There, trade winds cease -- as if by the flipping of a gigantic switch -- and the dark, agitated Atlantic gives way to the sparkling turquoise Caribbean Sea. In a sheltered space between Petit Saint Vincent and its companion island, Petit Martinique, yachts from around the world bob close to shore (yachties can swim to the beachside restaurant).

"Oprah Winfrey comes here," a chatty guest confided on yesterday's introductory tour.

"Really?" I asked, appropriately awed.

"Yes. And Bill Gates."

"Oh!"

"Of course they don't come ashore," said the knowing Long Islander who visits PSV every year. People that famous, she explained, stay aboard, sending out landing parties to bring back five-star take-out. Lesser lights, however (think rock stars and actresses), might be spotted in the bar.

I'm intrigued. But I secretly hope for something more than world-class people watching on this trip. In fact, I have a personal interest in this part of the Anglophone Caribbean, where the English -- after centuries of trying to wrest the Celts and Gaels from Ireland and Scotland -- devised an ingenious colonial plan: First, get in on the land grab underway in the Caribbean, competing with the Spanish, Dutch and French to carve out a piece of sunny tropical pie. Next, wipe out the Caribbean natives, round up the Scots and Irish and transport them to the newly emptied islands, where they could work on plantations along with African slaves. This history triggers no small amount of emotion in me, an American of Scottish (and partly Irish) descent, and I'm disturbed by the lack of attention paid to it by Caribbean tourism programs. Shamrock logos and tourist pub crawls don't begin to acknowledge the strains of Scottish and Irish culture that echo through these islands. In the Grenadines and on nearby Barbados, Scottish remnant communities date back to the removals of the 1600s and 1700s, and green-eyed, light-skinned Africans in the Grenadines carry on Scottish surnames. I'm hoping that the multiply ethnic and variously hued people I saw bustling around the resort yesterday will reveal part of the deeper story I'm looking for.

"They call me Indian," says a smiling Elvel Gaymes, the head gardener of PSV Resort. I find him a short distance inland, surrounded by lovingly tended plants on the island's main farm. He is fiercely proud to be a Black Caribe, a cultural group formed when escaped African slaves mixed with a remnant of Caribe Indians on the nearby island of St. Vincent. There they successfully resisted a string of European colonizers for more than 150 years. Surely this man would understand my search for lost highlanders -- victims of the same "Old Foe," England -- freedom fighters exiled for defending Scotland to the bitter end.

But faced with this smiling gentleman on this sunny day, I don't have the first idea how to broach the subject. I ask a few questions about the resort, and I can barely understand his answers. "Excuse me?" I ask again and again. His creolized English, known simply as "dialect," developed when planters forced African slaves to learn the Queen's English. They learned, but they also created a sub-language unintelligible to the planters, a language designed to make the English feel -- as I was feeling now -- more than a bit inferior.

I am about to thank Mr. Gaymes and move on when he quite clearly and proudly says, "I have another plantation on the island." His sense of triumph -- and his choice of words -- is not lost on me. Today in this space and time, the past -- however painful -- seems vanquished in the life of Elvel Gaymes, a man who grows elegant produce for world-class chefs in paradise.

I walk on, knowing that PSV resort workers are the lucky ones in this area and that poverty and unemployment are the legacy of colonialism on many if not most Caribbean islands. I've seen the empty highlands and islands of Scotland, where communities never recovered from the "removals," and I've stared at the diagram of my own family tree, (which dates to the 1500s) where shortened branches end in terse notes: "Gone to South Africa, "Gone to Australia," and in my family's case, "Gone to America."

I notice plump, green miniature apples gathered in a shallow gully by the side of the path. Resort guests are strongly warned to avoid this tempting, poisonous fruit; its parent tree, the manchineel, has sap that can blister the skin. Giving the scrubby trees wide berth, I head for Marni Hill, one of several high points on this craggy volcanic island. Parts of the hike are steep, and today -- like most days in the Grenadines -- the temperature stays near 80 degrees. All around, tall grass and wind-blown brush are sketched in charcoal and beige, punctuated by slashes of vibrant green: giant cactuses towering 10 feet high. At the end of dry season, every fiber of this evocative landscape yearns for the coming downpour. I sip from my water bottle and drink in the Marni Hill view of Petit Martinique, less than a mile away. I imagine women peering back at me, looking out from the small homes that cling to its rugged hillsides. Many of them wait for husbands, sons or daughters to return from jobs on Petit St. Vincent -- jobs many have held for decades, even generations. Strangely enough, these sister islands belong officially to separate nations: Petit Martinique is the northernmost member of Grenada's three-island nation, and Petit St. Vincent the most southern of St. Vincent's island group.

A huge cotton plant anchors a corner of the path near the resort's old desalination plant, puffs of white fiber dangling from gnarled black pods. Could this ancient-looking bush have survived from the 1700s, when a French slave-holding family owned PSV? Was it carefully tended by the lone Catholic priest who tried to farm here in the 1800s? Perhaps Arthur Oliverre, the cotton farmer who owned the island in the early 1900s, walked this same path, pausing to examine this very same plant. His daughter kept Petit St. Vincent in the family until the 1960s, when the island's current owners began to develop the resort.

I arrive at the water-sport dock to meet my snorkeling guide, Larrie, a smiling 26-year-old with caramel skin and green eyes. Yes! I think to myself. He could be part of the Caribbean's Scottish remnant! I keep my suspicions to myself -- asking about someone's race is not easy, even for a reporter.

As we swim around the rugged near-shore outcroppings, I'm startled to see my whole body below the water line. I seem to be flying in liquid air; nearby boats are airships, flying from one volcanic peak to the next. Larrie picks up a white spiny sea urchin from the mostly-empty bottom, offering it to me underwater. Startled by the soft texture of the spiky globe, I smile a mouth-full-of-plastic smile.

"It's OK to touch the white ones," he explains later, "but touch a black spiny sea urchin, and your vacation is over!"

He picks up a lone lobster, and we stand up to look at it, but the creature is dead and partially eaten.

"Fish eat each other," he says. "That's the way life is."

He assures me I'll have a more dramatic sea-life encounter tomorrow on my day trip to the Tobago Cays, known as one of the best snorkeling spots in the world.

Finally, I work up the courage to say, "Larrie, your looks are very interesting." He smiles and laughs a nervous laugh.

"Do you have Scottish blood?" I ask.

"Yes," he says shyly.

"Yes!" I shout inside my head. I am face-to-face with the archetypal Caribbean Gael!

"Oh, no." He quickly explains. "I don't know about that."

"But your eyes -- they're green, like mine."

He shrugs and looks down. I've clearly made a mess of it. I've embarrassed him.

"Well, you must be Catholic," I say cheerfully, pointing to the rosaries draped around his neck.

"Yes!" He nearly shouts his answer, his hand reflexively reaching for the beads. "I am Catholic!" His tone conveys pride and deep reverence, and in it I sense the depths of historical irony: Early Catholic conquerors -- Spanish and French -- may have slaughtered natives and traded slaves, but they also planted a faith that sustains this young man and the 1,000 residents of Petit Martinique, most of whom remain Catholic to this day.

"Everyone knows everyone on PM," says Larrie.

Petit Martinicans who work at PSV travel back and forth in small boats each day, but many others leave the island, finding work in places like Brooklyn, New York.

"Many more of us live in Brooklyn than on Petit Martinique," he says.

Larrie's cohort, Ron Isaacs, emerges from the dock house. I've been told he makes the beaded jewelry on offer in the PSV gift shop. "I could feature your jewelry in my article," I say magnanimously, feeling no small amount of power. "It might generate a lot of business for you."

"Oh, yes," he says politely. "But I only make the jewelry when I'm in the mood. If it turns into a business, then I have to make the jewelry."

"And you wouldn't want to do that?" I ask.

"No," he says, gently shaking his head. The young men turn to each other and converse in what sounds like a different language.

"What language are you speaking now?" I ask.

"English!" they exclaim together, laughing.

"Did you say something about me? Were you making fun of me?"

"No!" they exclaim, genuinely distressed. "No, never!"

"In school the teachers speak like you do," Larrie says. "They try to make us stop speaking dialect, but we are proud of it. We won't give it up."

Capping off our water-sports outing, I blithely agree to head into the trade winds with Larrie on a Hobie Cat -- a contraption made up of little more than a trampoline, a set of pontoons and a giant sail -- with only a single canvas strap to hold onto. Young men in the Grenadines grow up sailing a variety of craft between these closely clustered islands, and I have complete faith in my captain. It's me I'm not so sure about as we take off at what feels like 50 miles per hour. Suddenly, Larrie leaps to the other side of the trampoline, shouting, "Tack!" over the pounding of the Cat's framework on the waves.

"What?" I yell.

"Tack!"

"What?" I can hear him. I just don't know what he wants me to do.

"Move to the side!" he yells, pointing.

Attempting to comply, I end up on my stomach, pinned by the wind and facing headfirst into waves that break over the leading edge of the speeding trampoline.

He slows the craft, gently asking if I'd like to head back to shore. Spluttering, I say yes. He kindly drops me off, scrambles back onto the Cat and flies away on the wind.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not afraid of boats -- real boats with seats and sides. And here in the Grenadines, it's all about the boats -- from dinghies to launches to water taxis to big, beautiful motor yachts like the Hera, which ferries guests to PSV from the airport on Union Island. But the mother of all boats on my Grenadines adventure -- indeed, the matriarch of all Windward Island schooners -- is Jambalaya.

"We're going to tack -- sail out of the way to catch the wind," Captain Jeff Stevens shouts the next day as he maneuvers the 73-foot Jambalaya toward the Tobago Cays. It is a term with which I am now familiar. "That's the whole point of sailing, isn't it?" Stevens asks rhetorically. "Not just to turn the engines on and get there, but to get there under sail!"

Smooth sailing takes us past Union Island and Palm Island before the wind shifts north. Secure on a bench seat next to the captain's chair, I watch the 65-foot mainsail come around, slamming into place. Before long I'm lying backward, pinned against the seat back as the schooner tilts nearly to the water's surface. Gunmetal-gray swells rise and fall just over my shoulder. I tilt my head back and thoroughly enjoy the ride. But across from me a married couple sits ashen-faced, arms folded, staring down at their laps.

"Look at the horizon," the captain shouts at them, but they are beyond help. Unable to raise their heads, they shake them weakly.

Now mine is the high side, and I'm leaning forward, bracing with my feet, looking sharply down across the deck. A bright-white wake rolls off the low side of the ship and disappears into royal-blue waves just over the shoulders of the rigid couple. When the ship rights itself, they scramble below.

"That's the worst thing -- going below when you're seasick," Stevens says to me quietly. But below is where they stay as Jambalaya glides past Mayreau island and approaches the five tiny, uninhabited islets called the Tobago Cays. Stevens anchors away from the thickest concentration of visiting yachts.

Now's my chance to ask the captain, an Englishman raised on the Isle of Wight, about legendary Scottish boat builders who came to the Grenadine island of Bequia in the 1700s. Their descendants, who still live on Bequia, helped Stevens build Jambalaya in 2005. Why had the Scots come to the island, and what were those boats used for?

"I guarantee they don't know anything about that anymore," he says crisply. And that's that. I wonder for the hundredth time why this history is so important to me -- why, indeed, my Scottish roots matter so much to me. "It's your identity," comes the answer from a voice in my head. And that's that.

"Are you coming?" asks first mate Timothy Frederick as he lowers the inflatable over Jambalaya's side. About a half- mile up-current we don our masks and stretch out on the water, and I awake joyously to a Technicolor here-and- now. It's impossible to brood over history when silvery jacks and rainbow runners gather less than a yard away, circling a brain coral 3 feet in diameter. A juvenile angelfish swims right up to my mask, inspecting it with a youngster's lack of inhibition. We make eye contact, and the little fish literally jumps, darting off to the left. I hold still. He turns and swims back, tracking me with a sidelong, one-eyed glance. After one more pass, the coy, almost flirtatious encounter is over.

Calling us to the rubber launch, Tim hands out Ritz crackers. "Hold your arm straight out in front of you," he says.

I kick off, extending a rigid arm into the empty water with half-smashed crackers hidden in my fist. Before I can open my fingers, a flashing ball appears out of nowhere, exploding into a starburst of fish -- some tiny, some big as a finger, others as big as my hand. I let go of the crackers, and the darting mob scurries around at arm's reach, devouring every floating orange morsel. Each specimen is more beautiful than the next -- each face more unique -- but they appear and disappear before my attention can fully take them in. From that moment on, any objection I might have had to the practice of artificially baiting fish with snack food will be forever overpowered by the memory of that fleeting, flashing moment.

We snorkel our way back to Jambalaya, which is no longer isolated from the crowd. Many more yachts have arrived, and an enterprising local man in a small wooden boat is selling fresh lobster to a couple on the deck of the yacht nearest us. Capt. Stevens waves to another vendor, known only as "Mr. Quality," who brings his launch alongside. "I like to see some tourism money go to the local people," says Stevens. I couldn't agree more, eagerly shopping from Mr. Quality's selection of T-shirts. After our transaction, with two passengers still disabled below, Capt. Stevens gingerly sails back to PSV.

"Oh, the Scots and Irish were treated terribly," says Lisa, the PSV masseuse, whose lineage is part English, part African, part Palestinian -- to name only a few parts of her multi-ethnic makeup. During a massage punctuated by political discussion, she thoroughly dispels my romantic notions of the noble Caribbean Scot. "Scots were hired by the English to be the overseers on Caribbean plantations," she says. "So you won't find much sympathy toward the Scots in these islands."

But what about the uprooted Scottish peasants? What about the exiled freedom fighters?

"Their story's been lost," she says, matter-of-factly. Or at least overpowered. There's no doubt Scottish merchants and planters came here to profit from slavery; other Scots gladly hired on as militia; some no doubt built ships that transported human cargo. "The Scots got lumped together with the English. They weren't seen as victims." My brain struggles to contemplate the lack of justice in the world, but calmed by an expert massage, I drift off to sleep.

Early the next day I arrive at the resort's weekly beachfront barbecue, where I'm warmly greeted by chef Anthony "Jamaicy" Ferril, who presides over an elegant buffet table. Nearby, chef Yuri Thomas grills rock lobsters to perfection. Elvel Gaymes' homegrown potatoes, onions and peppers make an appearance in the delicious Caribbean salad, a dish made unique by the unusual texture of the potatoes -- a cross between soft, stringy yams and firm Idaho spuds. Polenta, or cornmeal mush, is a tasty staple in these parts. "In the Caribbean we don't call it polenta," Anthony chides. "We call it cou cou." His secret? "Add fresh coconut milk to the cornmeal, not canned -- canned is too sweet." The yacht folk who come ashore for the barbecue are polite and subdued -- no rich Frenchmen talking loudly on cell phones as other travel writers have complained.

In fact, most of the yachts that cruise the Caribbean these days are chartered, not owned, rented by several parties at a time, like the two couples at the next table, partners in a plumbing-supply company in Colorado. My populist spirit is buoyed by the thought of luxury travel trickling down to the (upper) middle classes.

On the final day of my visit I wait on the PSV dock for Hera to arrive, finally feeling relaxed enough to stay in this remote locale. I came looking for insights into the past, pursuing what some call a compulsive search for my ethnic identity. But I failed to uncover any forgotten truths about my heritage; I disproved no remembered lies. I have not satisfied the noble Celts and gallant Gaels who haunt my dreams. Instead I've been captured by a vibrant present in a beautiful part of the world. For now, all I can do is shift my attention to the living color of this Caribbean Sea. My heart breaks a little, knowing that I won't be spending the rest of my life staring into this beautiful blue.